BROOKSVILLE — Most of the time, the Hernando Utilities Department worker told investigators, the crews did the right thing. The sewage or sludge they recovered from a work site was disposed of properly.
Most of the time. Not always.
Sometimes, the crews were told to just dump the stuff on the side of the road or on the grounds of the defunct wastewater treatment plant, utilities worker Jared Whitehurst told investigators in early April.
"If there's a job that's going on,'' Whitehurst said, bosses Darrell Rose, Bruce Batten and Dan LeCompte told the crews not to bother hauling the sludge and sewage in their "vac truck'' to a lift station or the landfill for proper disposal.
Another utilities worker, Mike Rawlins, told of dumping as much as 2,000 gallons of raw sewage that had been sucked up from a broken sewer main into a drainage retention pond alongside Quality Drive off Mariner Boulevard.
A half dozen other times over a four-year period, Rawlins estimated, he had dumped 12,000 to 16,000 gallons of the stuff on the ground at the Hernando Beach wastewater treatment plant that is being dismantled and decommissioned.
Rawlins, a 10-year employee of the department, thought those actions were improper, but he said he was told to do it by his supervisor.
The workers were interviewed by investigators looking into complaints about racial harassment among workers in the county Utilities Department. The harassment allegations were upheld and several employees have been disciplined in recent days.
Lost in the barrage of headlines in recent days about the harassment complaints, however, were a number of unrelated health and safety issues that the interviews uncovered.
County Administrator David Hamilton told the St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday that an investigation is continuing into those matters. He referred specific questions to Utilities Director Joseph Stapf.
Stapf told the Times that immediately after Hamilton learned of the racial harassment complaint and passed that information along to utilities, Stapf called the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to report the complaint about the sewage dumping.
Since then, Stapf said, he has also forwarded the transcripts of interviews with the workers and he has talked with the official who handles wastewater issues for the state agency.
"We do know about the situation as far as the wastewater treatment plant is concerned,'' DEP spokeswoman Pamala Vazquez said Wednesday. "We are investigating. We have done several inspections and we're moving forward on this.
"We will be dealing with Hernando County directly in telling them what they need to be doing next.''
Stapf, who was a member of the investigative team that interviewed utilities employees, heard them speak about trying to make room in their trucks' tanks on job sites by siphoning off the liquid "decant'' from sewage and dumping it in places other than where it belonged.
The sewage should go into a manhole or other outlet that sends it to be treated, said the transcripts of those interviews.
As Stapf put it when he helped interview worker Jason Booker, the decant liquid is "supposed to go through a plant or to a landfill ... the material is probably flocked with pathogenic bacteria, or potentially.''
Stapf said Wednesday that he believes the main instances of improper dumping had been reported to the DEP when they happened. He added that he doesn't believe that the front-line employees knew that such reports had been made.
The dumping sites were all cleaned up later, he said.
While disposing of raw sewage or sludge on the scene of the problem or on the grounds of the old treatment plant is not ideal, Stapf said that sometimes it has to be done to keep an emergency from getting worse.
The county has one "vacuum truck,'' he explained, and once it is filled it has to be emptied. Driving it to an appropriate facility could take too much time when workers are dealing with a burst pipe or some other emergency. Supervisors in the field sometimes have to make a judgment call that the public might not understand, Stapf said.
"Is it the best way or the most appropriate way? That's one of those things that can be easily second guessed after the fact,'' he said. "That's why we're asking the DEP to review it all.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.