Franklin County commissioners, upset at talk around the community that the Eastpoint dredge project would be further delayed, voiced their anger at a special meeting last week.
The Jan. 26 meeting, called by Chairman Ricky Jones, focused on why it is that the dredge contractor has been slowed in its progress, apparently because the equipment used has so far proved insufficient in quickly dislodging the dredge spoils that are creating a tidal marsh.
“We ordered a dredge and you all sent us a bucket,” said Commissioner Noah Lockley. “We have those buckets; we want the channel dredged with a dredge.
“We got people depending on this, constituents that part of their livelihood is to go through that channel,” he said. “They were tearing up their boats because dirt was in there. We need it done, we want it done right and we want a dredge to come in there and do it.”
Speaking as the lone representative from the dredge operation, Levi Lemoine, an executive with subcontractor Wilco Marsh Buggies, out of Harvey, Louisiana, said the marsh buggy, with a dredge attachment, had met with difficulties in dislodging the dirt and silt when it began on the outside edge of the channel.
“We are behind schedule,” he told commissioners via Zoom. “I can’t tell you on the spot what our completion date will be. It will be a matter of when we get an additional machine in.”
“If we leave the one we have now, it will be an additional four months,” he said. “Another machine will cut that time in half.”
No representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers, nor from contractor Mike Hooks LLC, out of Westlake, Louisiana or from sub-contractor Coastal Dredging Company, out of Hammond, Louisiana, were present on the call.
Neither the Corps, Mike Hooks or Coastal Dredging, have responded as of press time to inquiries from the Times.
Lemoine said the dredge operation had been moving about 150 yards of dirt per hour in the last couple days.
“We have gotten off to a slow start but we will be finishing the project,” he said. “It will be done correctly; if not we will not get paid.
“There has been some chatter about us not finishing the project,” Lemoine continued. “In 52 years of business, our company never pulled off the job before completing it. We’re not in any sort of financial trouble, and there’s no threat of us leaving the job before finishing. In the grand scheme, this contract is bonded. It’s going to get done one way or another.”
He said the contractors are in talks now to bring in a bigger machine, hopefully within the next month. “By the time we get to the north-south channel we will probably have a new machine there,” Lemoine said.
Commissioner Ottice Amison said workers on the project had been speaking out at local bars, and that is one reason why talk has spread throughout the county that the dredge project was in trouble.
“Tell them to keep their mouth shut. They’re running their mouths about things we have no clue about,” he said. “Take some measures and control that, if you don’t mind.”
Amison pressed Lemoine on whether this was Wilco’s first open water dredge job your company has done.
Lemoine said Wilco has experience in open water dredging. “This is a brand new piece of equipment for us,” he said.“That piece of equipment is the only dredge we have; that’s why you see a marsh buggy with dredge attachment.
They (the Corps) thought our piece of equipment was the best for the job,” Lemoine said. “That’s why we’re bringing in this additional conventional dredge.
“It’s going to be done and done right. It’s not an if, it’s a when. We’re kind of taking the blame,” he said,
“You’re pretty much the patsy, the fall guy,” said Amison.
Commissioner Jessica Ward, attending via Zoom from Tennessee, also expressed frustration. “Eastpoint is due a dredge and it must be done right,” she said.
In his remarks, Jones stressed that while the county is using millions of its Triumph money to fund the more than $6 million project, the Corps continues to hold the permit for the dredging and is directly overseeing the project. He secured support from his colleagues to take over the role of dredge permitting once this Corps project is complete.
“We need to get our own permit,” he said, “We don’t need to ever go through this again.”
Jones said that while the Corps had promised an 18-inch cutter edge for the dredging, Wilco was using an eight-inch one.
“It looks like nothing more than a slush pump,” he said. “It’s good you’re talking about bringing in something bigger.”
He pressed Lemoine on why Timmy Butler, who has a dredge with Coastline Clearing and Development, wasn’t given the option to take part in the dredging. Lemoine said he has since been in talks with Butler.
“We could have hired Coastline or Jason White any of these local folks, and we would have the satisfaction that our local families are being taken care of,” said Commissioner Cheryl Sanders. “Right now we think we’re being sold a bill of goods.”
Lemoine said that the Corps is responsible for quality control of the project, and conducts inspections each week, which review a survey of the channel and its depths.
“We don’t get paid unless we reach the design grade and line shown in the plan,” he said.
Lemoine said inaccurate geotechnical data had led to the Corps giving its blessing to machinery used in the dredging, which would also save money. “We expected more silt and coarse sand,” he said. “This was the only machine that could get in and build containment dikes. We had to go build the dike system and that couldn’t be done with a regular amphibious excavator. They thought our piece of equipment was the best for the job.
“Bringing in two separate units would have been very expensive. In hindsight it would have been better,” Lemoine said.
County Attorney Michael Shuler said he would review the master contract for the project, and what legal options, if any, might be available to the county.