Sewage spill into Sweetwater Creek far worse than thought

TAMPA — Sunday's pipeline break sent nearly 2-million gallons of raw sewage into Sweetwater Creek, a far worse spill than Hillsborough County officials initially believed.

Hillsborough Water Resources officials said Tuesday they would move quickly to replace the entire segment of newly installed pipeline in Town 'N Country that broke twice within a month.

"We've had enough problems in that section of pipe that Water Resource Services is not confident about the integrity of what's in the ground," said Engineering Services group manager Chuck Hammett.

More than 1.8-million gallons of sewage spewed from a crack in an 18-foot section of pipe Sunday near Hanley Road and Comanche Avenue. The county initially estimated the spill at 300,000 gallons.

A previous break on Sept. 12 sent 200,000 gallons into Sweetwater Creek.

The latest break was on a line that was part of a $700,000 project to replace 2,600 feet of iron pipe with a thick-walled PVC pipe.

Officials said the earlier, smaller estimate in Sunday's break was based on preliminary, incomplete data.

Whatever the amount, the contamination has been a disaster for neighboring Sweetwater Organic Farm, owner Rick Martinez said.

The pipeline broke right across the creek from his operation. The 6-acre farm is on a well-water system, so he had to stop watering the crops. Martinez said the county is working to get him a city water connection.

"Things are dying in the fields right now," he said.

Officials are investigating the cause of the breaks and testing water in the area. The investigation will focus on the pipeline, other materials, construction and workmanship, and will include sending sections of the split pipeline to an independent forensics laboratory.

Sweetwater Creek is about 20 feet wide and less than 6 inches deep near where the line broke. The southern moving water flows steadily toward Tampa Bay near the Courtney Campbell Parkway.

Fred Nassar, with the county's Environmental Protection Commission, said the agency is testing for fecal matter. Officials are concerned about potential algae blooms or fish kills, but so far have seen no signs of that.

County engineers expect to have a design ready by the end of the month to run a replacement line parallel to the 900-foot problem section between the creek and Hanley Road. The work also will be expedited, and the repair is covered by a warranty, Hammett said.

Water Resources officials praised their overnight and on-call staff for sounding the alarm and detecting Sunday's break under difficult circumstances.

A sewage-treatment plant operator spotted trouble late Sunday night when he noticed flow rates were below normal and notified supervisors.

Then a mechanic discovered the massive rupture after driving through neighborhoods and tracing the paths of pipelines in the early morning darkness.

Tuesday, heavy equipment sat near cut lengths of replacement pipe. The smell of sewage still hung in the air.

An orange warning sign near a bridge crossing Sweetwater Creek at Comanche Avenue stated: "High bacteria levels, health risk at this time. No swimming or wading or fishing."

Joenell Parrish, 23, said her 4-year-old dog, Lakota, broke through the fenced yard and went for a run Sunday. The dog came back covered in sewage.

"It makes me worry about the future of this property, the environment and the bay," Parrish said. "The whole system is connected."

Jared Leone can be reached at jleone@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5314.

Sewage spill into Sweetwater Creek far worse than thought 10/14/08 [Last modified: Friday, October 17, 2008 6:16pm]

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