Jeff Helms pops open a manhole with a crowbar and drops a giant green hose into a dank, smelly tank.
A Mack truck sucks fat and greasy water from the 25,000-gallon interceptor that keeps it from entering the sewer system, where it builds up like cholesterol in arteries and causes SSOs — a harmless-sounding acronym for raw sewage overflowing into houses and streets.
So Helms, who works for a grease hauler called FCS, does monthly pumpouts of the fat that leaks down drains into the traps.
Pinellas County, which is implementing a grease management program, has persuaded three-quarters of restaurants to yield to annual inspections and monthly pumpouts. Now it's the holdouts, small businesses that resist the cost of a new trap, the program's two inspectors are chasing.
"The inspectors have to have a thick skin," said Phil Bramlage, who heads up the grease management program. "People don't like regulation."
The county says it's a program whose time had come. In 1999, right before Pinellas County passed its first grease rules, sewer spills were hitting record highs. That year, the county traced 21 spills to grease. Cleanup crews that responded would find logs of fat in the bowels of the wastewater system. The spills could cause dangerous bacteria to run off into stormwater drains and seep into bodies of water.
But the first set of rules had no teeth. Restaurants would dump deep-fryer fat down the sink and it would sail right through grease interceptors that hadn't been pumped out.
So this time around, it's costing.
Cafe Racer on Madeira Beach closed rather than get a grease trap. They said they didn't need one because they only serve coffee. Pinellas County disagreed, saying Cafe Racer would need a new one and the floor would have to be torn up to put it in. The price tag was about $3,200.
"They were relentless. You had to do it," said LynnRae Kidd, the owner. "It was like they wanted to close the small businesses, they wanted to shut us down."
Bramlage said the county has granted no exceptions to the new rules, which the County Commission passed in 2005. He said he knew it would put a hardship on small businesses but saw no way around it.
Inspector Bob Vaughn said he considers himself an educator. He says most businesses have been cooperative.
"It's not the government trying to get more money from people," Vaughn said. "There's a reason."
Spillover sewage is expensive, costing an average $1,100 for each cleanup plus fines up to $2,500 from the Department of Environmental Protection if the sludge reaches state waters.
The grease management program itself, which reaches out to homeowners about properly handling grease in addition to monitoring restaurants, cost about $123,000 last year.
Though that's far more than the approximately $23,100 cost of grease-caused sewage spills in 1999, Bramlage said the damage is immeasurable. He said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends grease management programs for that reason.
"From the environmental protection issue standpoint, one is too many," Bramlage said. "It can cause problems to the environment and problems to public health."
At the Lobster Pot restaurant in Redington Shores, the county inspector found a 1978 grease interceptor with no bottom and a caved-in wall. Debbie Feimster, office manager, was told that they would have to replace it.
"It was quite an expense," Feimster said. "I thought 'Oh my God, how much is that going to be?' "
The answer was $20,000. But Feimster said the restaurant is saving in plumbing costs. Before the new interceptor, the drains were backing up.
"We don't seem to have that problem anymore," Feimster said. "We're not having to pay a plumber anymore."
Stephanie Garry can be reached at (727) 892-2374 or [email protected]