DEP: County utility buried tainted dirt

The state agency finds signs of human or animal waste in the 7,849-cubic-yard stockpile at Embassy Hillswastewater treatment plant. But the county says the heap is much smaller and not buried.

Published June 18, 2006

PORT RICHEY - A state investigation has found that the Pasco County utility system "stockpiled and subsequently buried" a heap of sewage-tainted dirt three years ago at the Embassy Hills wastewater treatment plant.

The state Department of Environmental Protection estimated that the tainted stockpile is almost 8,000 cubic yards - enough to fill 872 concrete mixers. But county officials said the heap is significantly smaller and only stored on site, not buried.

"It was put over into a berm to let it sit and dry out," said Bruce Kennedy, the assistant county administrator who oversees the utility system. "Some nice grass came into it, and it created a nice berm around the area where we collect other rubble and material."

Soil samples from the plant on Crabtree Lane showed excessive levels of fecal coliform, bacteria that indicate the presence of human or animal waste, the DEP said. The tests also found elevated levels of nitrate, another waste compound, although they did not exceed allowable levels, the DEP said.

The county has agreed to take the dirt to a landfill, at a cost of about $200,000, said Bob Sigmond, the utility system's special projects supervisor.

The DEP also ordered the county to install groundwater monitoring wells to determine the extent of contamination. After the cleanup is completed, the agency will consider possible penalties, spokeswoman Pamala Vazquez said.

"The most important thing is to make sure the environment and the people living in it are protected," she said. The threat to the public, if any, won't be known until the tests are complete.

The tainted stockpile is the latest in a string of violations by the county-run utility system, which provides water to 88,000 customers and sewer service to 70,000 homes and businesses.

The DEP has proposed a $2-million fine for other transgressions, including a raw sewage spill of 21.2-million gallons near Lake Bernadette last summer, the expansion of the Wesley Chapel wastewater treatment plant without a permit and the general state of disrepair at other plants.

The agency also concluded that the county quietly - and illegally - installed an 8-inch pipe to send excess stormwater and partly treated wastewater into a tributary of the Hillsborough River, which supplies Tampa's drinking water.

County Administrator John Gallagher said the utility's woes boiled down to two things: spills from sewer system malfunctions and too much treated wastewater that accumulates in ponds because homeowners aren't using it to water their lawns during the rainy season.

He said solutions for both are in the works. Last fall, county commissioners approved construction of a 140-acre holding pond that can store as much as 400-million gallons of treated wastewater, at a cost of $21.6-million.

And last month, commissioners approved a $71-million bond issue to expand the capacity at the Shady Hills wastewater treatment plant from 2-million gallons per day to 14-million gallons per day.

In two years, the county will borrow $150-million more to lay pipes and other infrastructure to send most of west Pasco's sewage to Shady Hills. That will allow the county to shut down the smaller plants in Embassy Hills, Hudson, Deer Park and Odessa.

"The plan is to have one centralized plant that will be easier to maintain and manage," county budget director Mike Nurrenbrock said.

As for the tainted dirt at Embassy Hills, Gallagher said, "I don't think it was anything consciously done, but who knows."

The dirt was left on the site three years ago, when crews replaced the aging tanks and filters at the Embassy Hills wastewater treatment plant, as part of a $2.6-million upgrade to the facility.

Receipts show the county trucked in 6,998 cubic yards of clean dirt. Kennedy said crews used most of that dirt to fill in the areas where underground tanks were removed. That dirt was not contaminated, he said.

The rest of the dirt was mixed with leftover sludge in the tanks to remove the slick residue, Kennedy said. The tainted dirt was then placed around an outdoor storage area where crews tossed rubble and other discarded material, he said.

"That's just kind of a storage area," Kennedy said.

The intent was to keep the dirt there indefinitely, Kennedy said, even though DEP regulations say dirt fouled by sewage tanks "must be disposed at a permitted landfill or incinerated."

Looking at the amount of dirt taken to the site, DEP officials concluded that the tainted stockpile is 7,849 cubic yards. But Kennedy said much of the dirt went into the ground as clean fill, and only a small portion was mixed with the sludge and piled on the site.

At any rate, he said, the county will remove the tainted dirt and perform the soil and groundwater tests that the DEP requested.

"Whatever they want us to do," Kennedy said, "we're happy to do it."

Bridget Hall Grumet can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505 ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is bgrumet@sptimes.com.