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County to repay cost of cleaning up sprinklers

Many southeastern Pasco residents are criticizing the county for not alerting them about the contamination.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000


NEW PORT RICHEY -- County commissioners agreed Tuesday to shell out roughly $80,000 to clean out bits of corn, sesame seeds, hair and toilet paper that some Pasco residents found in their sprinkler systems after reclaimed water lines were contaminated with partly treated sewage.

County officials aren't exactly sure how some 25,000 gallons of treated wastewater -- which had stagnated for several years in an unused reclaimed water line -- ended up en route to the irrigation systems of the Meadow Pointe, Northwood and the Lakes of Northwood communities in southeastern Pasco.

They did know something was wrong after those residents began complaining to the county two weeks ago about a foul odor every time they watered their lawns.

"It smelled like sewage," said Meadow Pointe resident Heather Parry. She brought part of a sprinkler head coated in brown sludge for county commissioners to see. Those residents whose sprinklers were clogged will be credited the cleanup costs on their water bills over the next couple of months. County officials estimate the costs per house could run from $75 to $250, with most running around $200. Total cleanup costs for the county are estimated at $80,000.

County officials shut down the reclaimed water lines to those communities around April 19 after tests revealed unusually high levels of fecal bacteria, Assistant County Administrator for Utilities Doug Bramlett said.

"I was concerned at first (about health effects) because we didn't know what we were looking at," Bramlett said.

Bramlett and other utility officials later said that there were no health risks posed by the incident. The county has repeatedly flushed and disinfected those lines, and most have been turned back on, Bramlett told county commissioners Tuesday.

But that answer didn't satisfy Parry and other residents who waited nearly eight hours to speak to commissioners at the end of Tuesday's meeting. They criticized the county for not going door-to-door to alert residents of the contamination and warning them not to let their children or pets play on the lawn.

Only those residents who called to complain were told that the problem was caused by stagnant reclaimed water, Parry and other residents said.

"Residents were not notified," said the Lakes of Northwood resident Dan Brott. He brought with him his own laboratory test results that showed high bacteria counts.

Added Parry: "There's a big difference between stagnant water and treated wastewater. ... I was told that there was nothing that could cause major harmful health effects to my family," Parry added.

Parry said she and her 10-month-old daughter have had mild cases of diarrhea since the contamination and she fears her other toddler may have tracked some of the wastewater from the lawn into her carpets. In addition to clearing out her irrigation system, Parry said she wants the county to pay to clean her carpets, too.

"My baby crawled on the carpet and she had her cracker in her hand," Parry said.

Bramlett said he and his staff concentrated their efforts on fixing the problem as quickly as possible. After eliminating other possibilities, county staff discovered that a DOT contractor switched on the valve to the reclaimed water line, which had not been run in several years.

That line had been "borrowed" roughly five years ago to ship partially treated sewage from the Trout Creek wastewater plant, which had non-working percolation ponds, to the old Wesley Chapel wastewater plant. The line was supposed to be flushed, disinfected and returned to the reclaimed water system after those two plants went off line and a new wastewater plant was built, Bramlett said.

No one knows why that didn't happen.

"Everyone just assumed it had been done," Bramlett said.

So when the DOT contractor switched that valve on, the 25,000 gallons of treated wastewater that had been sitting in the pipe mixed with the reclaimed water and was shipped off to the southeastern communities.

Bramlett said the state Health Department and the Department of Environmental Protection have been notified of the incident.

Commissioners gave County Administrator John Gallagher the discretion to decide whether to reimburse other costs, such as carpet cleaning.

Residents who have their systems cleaned out should send copies of their receipts to Pasco County Utilities, P.O. Box 2139, New Port Richey, FL, 34656-2139. If you have questions, call one of the following numbers: (813) 996-7341, (800) 226-8144 or (800) 368-2411 and ask for ext. 8131, 8041 or 8145.

Alisa Ulferts covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is ulferts@sptimes.com.

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