PORT RICHEY — State environmental officials have warned Aqua Utilities about "possible violations of law" at two sewage plants in west Pasco.
Warning letters sent last week from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection chronicle abuses such as excessive solid waste and improper maintenance at the Palm Terrace and Jasmine Lakes wastewater plants.
Aqua Utilities Florida president Judy Wallingford said the utility plans to meet with the department in mid July to discuss the findings.
"There's a lot of things the DEP points out that we need to fix or work on," she said, adding that the complaints focus on problems inside the plants and don't fault the final discharge of treated wastewater. "They're trying to help us optimize how the plants perform."
Wallingford said repairs would be finished within one to two months.
If violations are found, Aqua could be on the hook for repair costs and up to $10,000 in fines. A court could also impose additional fines.
The letters say Aqua could be violating state rules that require adequate maintenance of wastewater plants and proper sewage treatment.
For example, the department found "excessive solid waste" in several parts of the Palm Terrace plant. The letter describes tennis ball-sized "solids" floating in one tank and a foot of sewage in an area that shouldn't have any solid waste. Findings at the Jasmine Lakes plant include excessive waste and leaking equipment. A report from March found each plant exceeded certain bacteria levels in treated water.
A plant overloaded with solid waste could lower efficiency and increase the chances of environmental hazards.
Pasco Utilities director Bruce Kennedy said he doesn't know the details of the findings, but added, "they've got quite a few things here that they need to respond to and address."
The Palm Terrace letter also mentions a May 17 accident that dumped 2,000 gallons of treated wastewater into a county storm water retention pond. That incident in particular gave county Commissioner Jack Mariano "grave concerns." He forwarded the letters on Wednesday to Gov. Rick Scott's office, asking the department to give a history of repairs at the plant.
The warning letters come shortly after state utility regulators granted Aqua a $2.6 million rate increase over the objections of customers who complained of substandard water at high prices.
The higher rates mean monthly water and sewer bills for a typical Jasmine Lakes home will rise to $120 while customers in Palm Terrace and Zephyr Shores will pay $132. Customers have vowed to continue fighting the company. Two weeks ago, Mariano called for the rate increases to be reconsidered and for more extensive monitoring of Aqua's water delivery system.
Lee Logan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.