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Delay cleaning sewage spill questioned

Officials wonder why Florida Water Services crews didn't move faster taking care of the Sugarmill Woods mess.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 20, 2002


SUGARMILL WOODS -- Talk about creating a stink.

A faulty valve allowed about 2,970 gallons of untreated sewage to spill Thursday from a lift station on Byrsonima Court, creating a small wastewater stream in this central pocket of Sugarmill Woods.

Florida Water Services crews quickly sprinkled lime over the spill to kill the bacteria.

But the crews planned to let the mess sit over the weekend, unable to get permission from Florida Water supervisors to pay for the overtime hours to clean it up before Monday, said Robert Knight, director of the county's Office of Utility Regulation.

That changed after a few calls from county and state officials.

"The (Department of Environmental Protection) made it very clear to them that the fines would grossly exceed any savings from avoided overtime," Knight said. "When I got there (Friday afternoon), there were dump trucks and crews shoveling it up. It was all cleaned up by Friday evening."

A Florida Water spokeswoman said Tuesday she was unable to provide information on the incident.

According to reports, even the cleanup did not go off without a hitch. An additional 3,142 gallons -- part spilled sewage, part potable water used in the cleanup -- was "inadvertently flushed down a storm water drain and into a Drainage Retention Area," according to a report Florida Water filed with DEP.

Florida Water cleaned the drainage area and covered it with lime, the report stated.

Utilities must notify DEP of any spill within 24 hours and clean it up quickly, although there is no specific deadline for doing so, DEP spokeswoman Merritt Mitchell said.

"It is understood by the utility that they need to address cleanup as soon as possible," she said.

Although the mess in Sugarmill Woods is gone, Knight still smells a problem.

Florida Water's parent company, Allete Corp., has been negotiating a possible sale of the statewide utility to the Florida Governmental Utility Authority, a coalition of several local governments including Citrus County.

Knight wonders whether Florida Water has been skimping on operations and maintenance costs lately to maximize profits before the system is sold.

He will describe the incident next month to the Citrus County Water and Wastewater Authority, a five-member board that regulates local private utilities.

Knight will suggest sending a letter to Florida Water asking why, at least initially, the utility could not commit some overtime workers to clean up the mess.

"Not getting authorization to clean up a sewage spill when you should, that concerns me," Knight said.

-- Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached at 860-7303 or bhall@sptimes.com.

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