OLDSMAR — Lawn sprinklers fell silent this week in Oldsmar after someone dumped a highly acidic chemical into the sewers and the city was forced to shut down the reclaimed water system.
City officials aren't sure when the irrigation water can be turned back on.
Drinking water is not affected.
"It's a good thing it rained yesterday," said Public Works director Lisa Rhea, "and it's supposed to rain this weekend."
Now, no one can use reclaimed water until a cluster of microorganisms grows back.
The dumping of the chemicals created a full-out emergency at the city's water treatment plant. Rhea, a former science teacher, said that sometime before sunrise Tuesday, an unidentified party apparently emptied the potent sludge into a storm drain or manhole.
Operators at Oldsmar's water treatment plant quickly noticed a problem and closed the reclaimed water valves. No tainted fluids left the city's million-gallon reclaimed tank, Rhea said.
"It was like a fire drill," she said. "It's very serious. We've been aggressively pursuing this."
The worst damage done by the dumping: The chemical killed most of the microorganisms the city uses to break down sewage. Now, the city must wait for the few microorganisms left to reproduce to the number necessary to meet state standards. The recent warm weather, she said, should hasten the process.
"We've done everything we can do," Rhea said. "There's no way to know how long it'll take."
Most of Oldsmar's reclaimed water is used to irrigate residents' lawns, Rhea said. Pinellas County sometimes buys it.
Oldsmar officials notified the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office so deputies could keep watch for others who may be inclined to pump pesticides or liquid metals, for example, into the sewer system. It's illegal and extremely damaging, Rhea said.
Meanwhile, city staff members swabbed samples of Tuesday's dumped chemicals and sent them to a lab for testing.
"We think it was ignorant, not malicious," Rhea said. "But one more hit like that could wipe out our whole waste plant."
Danielle Paquette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4224.