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    Drink up! Water's fine, tests show

    After two days of boiling and toting water, residents in two counties get an all clear. But pipeline repairs continue.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 23, 2003

    Pinellas and Pasco counties on Saturday night lifted their directives to boil water, allowing thousands of residents affected by the collapse of a key pipeline to resume drinking tap water.

    The health departments of both counties released test results indicating the drinking supply was not contaminated by Thursday's break in a 7-foot-wide concrete pipe in Pasco. Tampa Bay Water is still working to repair four weak points in the collapsed pipeline, an effort that could take two or three more days.

    The quality of water in the repaired pipeline will be tested before the pipe is used. Until it is back on line, the city of St. Petersburg is supplying about one-third of county customers' water in Pinellas, and the county still wants residents to limit their water use until the county system is fully operational.

    Dunedin and Belleair have their own wells and have not been instructed to reduce water use.

    "St. Petersburg will be the linchpin of sharing water with Pinellas County until this pipe is fully restored," said Jonathan Kennedy, director of operations and facilities at Tampa Bay Water.

    The relaxing of the boil-water rules also meant the end of a bottled water-buying frenzy throughout most of Pinellas and left water-reliant businesses with fewer questions from their customers. The situation brought confusion Saturday, as restaurant patrons quizzed waiters on the source of the drinking water they were serving, and hotel guests inquired about whether they could at least brush their teeth with tap water.

    County officials maintained from the beginning that the water boiling restriction was only a precaution, as no contamination was ever discovered in the pipelines. The 84-inch water main collapsed Thursday afternoon on a ranch in Pasco County and pumped 2-million to 3-million gallons of water into the remote area before workers discovered the leak and shut off the pipe.

    Many of the 600,000 residents affected by the initial boil-water notice, which lasted 21/2 days, called county help lines and television stations and newspapers for information. Among their questions: Do the restrictions apply to my neighborhood? What do I do if I already drank the water? How do I report a restaurant that isn't taking precautions?

    The collapse affected 3,000 customers in Pasco County and most communities in Pinellas. The exceptions were Dunedin, Belleair, St. Petersburg, South Pasadena, Gulfport and Oldsmar.

    Local hotels and restaurants were left with a big hassle, particularly on the beaches, where tourism season is at its peak.

    "It's a headache for me," said Ken Richmond, the manager at the Village Inn in St. Pete Beach, who lugged packages of bottled water and ice with him to work Friday and Saturday. "I bought it this morning, I bought it yesterday morning, and I'll probably have to buy it tomorrow morning if we stay this busy."

    James Dempsey, general manager at the Holiday Inn in Madeira Beach, was running a bath for his children Thursday evening when he heard the news that drinking water might be contaminated in most of Pinellas County.

    He immediately called his staff with instructions: Call each hotel room, offer guests bottled water, post notices on ice machines.

    At the Olive Garden on U.S. 19 in Pinellas Park, employees wove masking tape around faucets and sinks to block patrons from turning on the water. They supplied antibacterial hand wipes for customers' use, along with a jug labeled "sanitized water."

    Tampa Bay Water is using parts it has on hand to fix the part of the pipeline most in need of attention. The company is also studying whether to replace the entire 8-mile pipe.

    "We only have so many parts," said Kennedy of Tampa Bay Water. "This stuff is six to eight weeks away if we order it."

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