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Pinellas County faces fine of nearly $300,000 over Tampa Bay contamination

CLEARWATER — Pinellas County faces a $298,460 state fine for sending contaminated water into Joe's Creek and Tampa Bay on hundreds of occasions since 2007.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection found several contaminants — nitrogen, copper and phosphorous — in treated discharge from a sewer plant near Boca Ciega Bay. The plant's discharge exceeded limits a combined 225 times between May 2007 and January, according to a proposed order. Nitrogen and other elements were found in Joe's Creek, DEP spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said Thursday.

The frequency of the violations was what led to the steep fine, Gibbs said. However, she added, the contaminants did not pose a serious human health risk.

County Administrator Bob LaSala said the breakdowns were serious, but the county has begun steps to improve the plant. Most problems involve its inner workings, and the cleansing process at the facility removed serious contaminants before they entered the water systems, LaSala and utility officials said.

"In terms of polluting the bay, we didn't pollute the bay," LaSala said.

If the county makes approved utility improvements, the fine can be reduced to $63,700 — a standard tactic by the state in large cases to improve utility systems. The county sent a letter Thursday offering odor control improvements worth $450,000.

The St. Petersburg plant at 7401 54th Ave. N treats about 21 million gallons of sewage a day. Most becomes reclaimed water for south Pinellas.

But it has a checkered past. In 1990, Pinellas agreed to pay the federal government $350,000 in fines for illegally dumping wastewater into Boca Ciega Bay for several years in the late 1970s and 1980s, according to news accounts. A similar consent order forced the county to pay $74,000 in state fines and began what became more than $200 million in upgrades to clean water enough to put it into the bay instead of wells.

Those problems are not related to the most recent trouble, utility officials said. Stricter environmental regulations went into place in 2007, utilities operations director Jim Rolston said. Meanwhile, the county began trying to improve parts of the plant that were becoming obsolete.

During that $1.5 million project, the contaminants turned up a lot more than expected.

The DEP found the violations by reviewing county reports, triggering a January 2009 violations notice.

According to the state's proposed order, the county has to make improvements to reduce levels of chlorine, copper and other byproducts of wastewater treatment by 2013.

The fine and related repairs will be paid for with sewer utility revenue. Depending on what improvements the state approves, the county faces $2 million to $15 million in work, utility department officials said.

Commissioners will discuss the proposed order at Tuesday's meeting in Clearwater.

Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel said she was satisfied the county has taken the right steps to fix the problems.

"These were not toxic chemicals that were put in the water," Seel said.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Pinellas County faces fine of nearly $300,000 over Tampa Bay contamination 04/30/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 12:01am]

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