PEMBROKE PARK, Fla. - While the toxic and disgusting blue-green algae blooms afflicting some Florida waterways and shores have shocked many, Gene Klusmeier said it doesn't surprise him at all. He's been warning of fundamental problems with the now $16 billion Everglades restoration project for more than a decade.
"The American people got hosed again," he said. "(Taxpayers are) being ripped off. This Everglades restoration project will never be in shape."
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Klusmeier has had some insider knowledge: His company had a contract to plant grass on levees at one of six stormwater treatment areas -- manmade wetlands at the heart of the project designed to naturally filter the pollution-choked runoff water from nearby farms, development and Lake Okeechobee in 2003.
He said that almost immediately he had realized that some of the contractors working on the 6,000-acre treatment area in Wellington, which was known as Stormwater Treatment Area 1 East, or STA-IE, were building shoddy levees, using sand that had been dug out and large rocks for the embankments, rather than the compactible soil called for in the contracts.
He had also complained about crucial compaction tests weren’t being done and that the levees weren’t being properly watered or rolled.
"I was here when they dug all these canals," Klusmeier said during a recent visit to STA-1E. "So whatever came out of there was put in the levees. We're talking sand. We're talking huge rocks. It wasn't suitable because it couldn't compact it."
He added it was like "building a sand castle on the beach -- once the water hits it, it's gone."
He said he complained about it to at least one of the contractors and to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which was building STA-1E at an original estimated cost of $200 million. But he said his complaints fell on deaf ears and that one Corps official joked that if what he said was true it would be good because it would create a bonanza of new contracts for vendors.
Klusmeier eventually filed a whistleblower's complaint with the U.S. Justice Department, telling officials that the levees meant to last 100 years would be lucky to last five.
The federal government conducted its own investigation that substantiated his most serious claims.
The investigation found evidence that rocks much larger than were allowed by the contract were built into the levees and that the levees were indeed constructed "primarily out of sand" and didn't meet the contract's soil requirements. It also found "no indication" that crucial compaction tests had been done as required by the contract.
"They weren't following the contract and they weren't following the Army Corps of Engineers' specs," Klusmeier said.
He filed a federal whistleblower's lawsuit that included soil samples from the levees showing that the levee material was more than 90 percent sand when the contract called for no more than 60 percent sand.
When the levees were pushed into service in late 2004 for Hurricane Jeanne, they failed, which was not a surprise.
Many of the levees crumbled and eroded, according to federal reports and damage photos, and required major repairs. But that was only the beginning of the debacle. During the past 10 years, STA-1E has been plagued with problems, including the failure of all of its 43 culverts.
The bonanza of contracts that had been joked about came true: Those repairs, according to Corps records, cost in excess of $70 million. The cost of STA-1E to taxpayers has ballooned to a staggering -- $375 million, $175 million more than the original estimate.
In addition to the staggering financial failures, STA-1E has also been blamed for environmental damage to the Everglades. In a massive federal lawsuit filed by the U.S. government alleging the South Florida Water Management District – which manages all six stormwater treatment areas -- polluted the river of grass with phosphorous, the district points the finger at the Army Corps of Engineers.
In a 2011 motion, it claimed the Corps was at fault for polluting the bordering Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge due to STA-1E's "significant construction defects."
District lawyers alleged that STA-1E was operating at only 60 percent of its treatment capacity at the time and was doing a poor job of reducing phosphorous levels in the water it managed to treat.
The state, wrote district attorneys, "cannot be held liable for (phosphorous) exceedances in the Refuge until STA-1E is adequately repaired and becomes fully operational."
Klusmeier also blames the Corps, which had officials on-site during construction of STA-1E. Jeff Couch, Okeechobee section chief for the Corps, admitted some blame for the agency.
"Ultimately, the Army Corps is responsible for what we construct," he said. "That’s who’s responsible for the construction as well as the design. I would simply say that we are working to address the problems that we observed."
As for Klusmeier's original complaints, Couch claimed there was nothing to them.
"It was investigated and determined that those claims weren't construction issues," he said.
"Absolutely false," countered Local 10 News investigative reporter Bob Norman in the audiotaped interview. "The Department of Justice investigated and found those levees were indeed made up primarily of sand, basically in violation of the contract. .. How did the Army Corps miss that, being on-site?"
"I have no information on what you're talking about," Couch said.
One way for the U.S. government to recoup some of that lost money could have come from Klusmeier’s whistleblower’s lawsuit.
But his legal fight, which dragged on for years, was handled on contingency by a Washington, D.C., law firm, and was dismissed by a judge on technical grounds.
Klusmeier said the Department of Justice, despite its corroborating investigation, never intervened in the case on his behalf despite assurances it would.
The U.S. Attorney's Office did file a motion, however, to give it standing to sue on the same grounds in the future.
It doesn't appear that has happened, and Couch said he was not aware of the Army Corps getting any repayments from any contractor involved in the poor construction and design at STA-1E.
"Where can you go for justice if the Justice Department fails to do its job?" asked Klusmeier. "What do you do?"
Couch said construction on STA-1E is expected to continue into 2017, but he stressed it was in operation and working well. In fact, South Florida Water Management District records do indicate that during the past year it treated the most water in its history and performed at its highest level in terms of reducing phosphorous in the runoff water.
But Klusmeier insists that if the levees were ever truly tested, they would fail again. During the recent visit, he scuffed the top of the levee and took the dirt in his hand.
"Sand," he said. "You can't compact it."
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