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    Bubbles muddle Pinellas' plans to settle wastewater problems

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 20, 2002

    It's not that they haven't tried.

    Pinellas County utility officials want to stop pumping treated wastewater into the ground.

    But they're still pumping it -- 13.5-million gallons, every day.

    The water pumped under South Cross Bayou is moving, and eventually could threaten underground water supplies. So state environmental regulators told the county in 1994 it would have to stop.

    The county has built a $100-million plant to clean the water more, so the county can dump it into Joe's Creek instead.

    Spent $25-million more so that some water can be recycled to irrigate lawns.

    Endured a $20-million lawsuit over the plant's construction.

    Begged two years of extensions to finish the job.

    And now, just weeks from its final deadline to stop pumping into the ground, everything is ready.

    Almost.

    Utilities engineers have been stymied by . . . bubbles.

    Clear, delicate, harmless little bubbles.

    "It's clean," Pick Talley, county utilities director, said of the water. "It just looks funny. It'll look like we're dumping suds in there. It's foamy."

    Which is why the county is still pumping wastewater 1,000 feet into the ground below South Cross Bayou, just north of 54th Avenue N on the banks of Joe's Creek.

    The county first began pumping wastewater into the ground in 1988. At the time, it seemed like a good idea. Before pumping it below ground, the county would have to disinfect it and remove most solids, much like the way it treats the reclaimed water used on lawns.

    But the county wouldn't have to go through the costly final step of removing nitrogen and phosphorus -- chemicals that fertilize lawns, but feed algae and kill fish if they're dumped into rivers and streams.

    Many other counties do the same thing. Almost a quarter of Florida's wastewater is pumped into the earth.

    In Pinellas, the plan called for water to be pumped down three wells, hundreds of feet below the drinking water in the Floridan Aquifer, where it would mix harmlessly with existing saltwater.

    It's worked fine in most Florida counties. But not here. In Pinellas, the underlying rock is too porous, allowing the wastewater to travel upward.

    Tests showed traces of wastewater had risen 800 feet from where it was injected, said Dave Slonena, the county's hydrogeology manager. That's still below the aquifer's drinking water, and state records say tests show that residential drinking water has not been contaminated.

    The test results meant the pumping had to stop.

    "It has the potential (to contaminate) if it's moving up, even though it's not causing any drinking water problems now," said Judith Richtar, a program manager at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

    In April 1994, county officials promised the DEP that they would build the $100-million advanced treatment plant and stop injecting water in five years, by April 1999.

    But the pumping continued and today the county has pumped 37-billion gallons into the ground since 1994. By comparison, it takes the entire U.S. trucking industry a year to use that much fuel.

    To meet the state's demand, the county began building the treatment plant and a $25-million reclaimed water treatment system. But the county hit a snag. It fired the construction company building the reclaimed water plant, saying the company's work was slipshod.

    Work stopped. The company sued -- and sued big. The $20-million lawsuit is one of the biggest the county has ever faced.

    Eventually, another company took over. But the delay pushed the county far behind schedule, Talley said. DEP officials agreed to extend the deadline to December 2001, then extended a separate permit to March 31 this year.

    The county has another injection well at its McKay treatment plant near Largo, where it pumps about 5-million gallons into the ground each day. Work to shut down that plant and treat its water at South Cross hit construction delays as well. The plant will now close by December, Slonena said.

    At South Cross, the plant has become something Talley is proud of.

    There's just the foam problem.

    Jim Fletcher, a wastewater treatment manager, said tiny amounts of soap or oil, too small to violate environmental standards, sometimes stay in the water and cause a "crisp white foam" to form when oxygen is added to the treated water. "It's like blowing into a straw in a glass, the way we all did when we were kids."

    Utilities officials say the foam is harmless, but they know residents won't like it.

    So they're working on solutions. They might add new chemicals to reduce the foam or trap it before it goes into the creek, Fletcher said.

    Whether the foam is gone or not, the wells will shut down by March 31, Talley said.

    If they don't, the county could face state fines, as much as $10,000 per day.

    -- Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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