TOWN 'N COUNTRY — Rick Martinez hopes this season will be less messy down on the farm. After all, it has been a year since sewer spills cost his Sweetwater Organic Community Farm its first harvest of 2008.
But the owner of the urban farm has plenty to celebrate Saturday during the seventh annual Planters Ball.
The potluck fundraiser signals the official start of the growing season for the farm and features food, live entertainment, dancing and more.
"It would be nice to have a nice, smooth year this year," Martinez said.
While Martinez is preparing a party, Hillsborough County is working to negotiate who will pay $500,000 for the costs associated with the spills in September and October 2008.
County attorneys are mediating the settlement among Spectrum Underground, North American Pipe, Ferguson Enterprises and Sigma Corp., said Rob Brazel, an attorney with the county.
Here is what happened:
In July 2008, Spectrum finished installing 2,600 feet of pipe near Hanley Road and Comanche Avenue. The $700,000 project replaced aging ductile iron pipe with PVC. A couple of months later, the line broke. Eventually, it broke four times within seven months, sending millions of gallons of untreated sewage into nearby Sweetwater Creek, which flows into Tampa Bay.
The county decided to replace 750 feet of the new piping with a special coated ductile iron pipe at a cost of $300,000, said Bill Bozeman, a project manager for the county. Eventually the rest of the line will be replaced as money becomes available.
"I was going to change whatever I had to change to make damn sure it would not happen again," Bozeman said.
County crews also installed a 750-foot bypass line next to where the breaks occurred. The bypass still is in place and will not be removed for a couple of months, Bozeman said.
"After an experience like that, you want to be on the safe side," Bozeman said. "This was very unusual."
After the first breaks last fall, the county sent sections of pipe to be laboratory tested. The reports by Jana Laboratories in Ontario indicate that the contractor that installed the pipe and the manufacturer of the pipe were possibly at fault. The report indicated that the pipe was not fused and coupled properly and that restraint devices were not properly installed on other pieces. Another tested piece was thought to have ruptured because of a "spider line," a defection in the pipe.
Aside from cleanup, fixing the broken pipe and replacing it, the county paid $30,000 in a June settlement for damage to Martinez's farm.
The urban farm, like most of the neighborhood, uses septic systems and well water. Martinez was worried about contamination to the well water and had to destroy thousands of dollars worth of crops.
The spills also set the farm's production back a couple of months. Martinez said the total loss was probably about $80,000. He put some of the settlement money into a state-of-the-art ultraviolet water treatment facility as an added safety measure.
The farm now produces vegetables for 500 members and is continuing expansion. The hope is no more broken pipes, and so far so good.
"Everything is going real smooth," Martinez said. It's scary."
Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or [email protected]