TAMPA — The leader of a local conservation group wants Hillsborough County to be more transparent when making decisions that could affect the environment.
The request from Kent Bailey, chairman of the Tampa Bay Group Sierra Club, comes after county commissioners nearly voted to raise the allowable level of toxins in industrial wastewater last week, unbeknownst to him.
"I believe it is 'good governance' to reach out to all groups reasonably likely to be interested in a specific action before the commission considers public input complete, even if not legally required," Bailey wrote Monday in a letter to commissioners. "A strong effort to keep citizens informed builds mutually beneficial trust and confidence in government."
Last week, county commissioners were scheduled to hold a public hearing and vote on amendments to Hillsborough's industrial waste water regulations, including a proposal to increase the allowable levels of nine toxins in water that facilities like mechanical plants and hospitals flush down the drain. Under the proposal, the approved threshold for lead in industrial wastewater would have tripled and the benchmark for arsenic would more than double.
Bailey said residents would not have known that from the agenda, which only noted that commissioners would be "revising existing local limits." The proposed changes to chemical levels were listed on page 103 of the 118-page ordinance and Bailey said he only became aware of the amendments after a Tampa Bay Times reporter inquired about the Sierra Club's position on them.
Commissioners ultimately decided to delay the vote until their February 15 meeting after citizens raised last-minute concerns. Commissioner Pat Kemp has since said she hopes the allowable levels for those nine toxins remain unchanged.
The county's industrial wastewater discharge regulation ordinance was created in 1985. About 21 facilities must abide by the standards. Hillsborough County Public Utilities Director George Cassady said all of them meet the current standards and none have asked for the legal limits to be raised.
Wastewater from industrial plants is sent to Hillsborough treatment plants, where it is scrubbed of most contaminants before it is used in irrigation or discharged into Tampa Bay.
The county Public Utilities Department has assured commissioners that the wastewater system can handle the elevated levels of these chemicals and it would not affect water quality. Hillsborough officials boast that the water it discharges into the bay is suitable to drink.
In addition to increasing some contaminant thresholds, the amended ordinance will also implement new regulations on private wastewater treatment facilities for the first time. Janet Dougherty, executive director of the Hillsborough Environmental Protection Commission, said the change eliminates "a gap that has existed for a long, long time and that's a positive forward step for the county."
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.