Florida Keys

A company quit cleaning Keys canals after it couldn't afford rooms for its workers

Florida Keys canal filled with storm debris months after Hurricane Irma

Big Pine Key residents and county officials try to address the canals on the key filled with debris from Hurricane Irma.
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Big Pine Key residents and county officials try to address the canals on the key filled with debris from Hurricane Irma.

Eight months after Hurricane Irma roared ashore in the Florida Keys, Monroe County is still looking for a company to clean its debris-choked canals.

The firm that was the lowest-bidder for the job, bid through the state, abruptly quit this month after finding out the hard way it couldn't do the job for $55 per cubic yard of debris hauled away, county officials said.

The state hired Texas-based DRC Environmental Services, which started Feb. 16 but only cleaned 20 canals on Big Pine, Ramrod and Little Torch Keys before packing it in a few weeks ago.

Workers also couldn't find accommodations in the expensive Keys, county leaders said.

“They tried,” said County Administrator Roman Gastesi. “Those poor guys were sleeping in their truck. They couldn’t afford to rent condominiums or hotel rooms. They were literally sleeping in their trucks.”

It's not clear if the company could face any financial penalty by the state for pulling out.

DRC, however, said the county's version of events is not true.

"We are not aware of any sleeping in trucks!" the company said through a spokeswoman.

DRC said work stopped because the county received a federal grant for the canal cleaning so its contract was no longer necessary.

County leaders took the firm's quitting in stride.

“The efforts to remove debris from canals moves at the pace of a turtle,” said County Mayor David Rice. “It’s not very easy to do.”

“Poor equipment, poor contract,” said County Commissioner George Neugent.

What remains in the Keys is 97,000 cubic yards of awnings, roofs, downed trees, RVs, broken docks and other debris blocking canals not only for boats but manatees and other marine life.

So only a fraction of the debris resting in 513 canals has been removed and officials grapple with the $52.6 million cleanup cost.

The state Department of Environmental Protection agreed to loan the county $6 million to pay for DRC's work but at a recent commission meeting, Gastesi said a federal funding program may be the better avenue.

Marathon and Islamorada got $2 million each from DEP.

County Sustainability Director Rhonda Haag applied to a federal agency for more money.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Resources Conservation Services deemed 103 of the canals eligible for funding reimbursement.

The county, Islamorada and Marathon recently reached an agreement with NRSC with the federal agency kicking in $37.8 million and local governments contributing about $11.4 million.

“If we get NRSC money, I don’t see us using this money,” Gastesi said. “Basically, we’re hedging our bets.”

Florida's congressional delegation, including Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, Democrat Bill Nelson and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, pushed for the funding, said Lisa Tennyson, Monroe County's director of Legislative Affairs.

Cammy Clark, spokeswoman for the county, said Rubio toured the Keys and met with local officials on the canal cleanup issue.

"Because of the extensive damage, his office urged NRCS to advance the process for Monroe County's approved application as quickly as possible," Anthony Cruz, a Rubio spokesman said Friday. "In a win for Monroe County, NRCS will also allow monthly reimbursements, rather than one lump sum at the end of the entire project, to help finance the total $46.3 million projected canal cleanup cost."