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Guest column | V. Abraham Kurien

Florida government failed Aloha Utilities customers for years

Now, with the purchase of Aloha Utilities by Florida Governmental Authority (FGUA) on behalf of the Pasco County, the citizens of Seven Springs in Pasco County have finally been assured that they will receive clean, safe and clear drinking water. It is worth reviewing why the problem of black water that was known to exist since 1992 has taken more than 16 years to reach a stage at which it seems that it might be ultimately resolved.

The answer can be summarized in a single sentence: Inadequate regulations, failure of oversight and non-enforcement of scientific standards, all of which were the responsibility of the Florida government at its various levels. Instead of being the government of the people and for the people, the basic definition of government that our nation should adhere to, the government of the state of Florida became subservient to outdated laws instead of justice, and served the needs of a private entrepreneur instead of the common welfare of the citizens.

The presence of sporadic black water in the domestic water supply in Seven Springs was well known as early as 1992. The scientific reason for its occurrence was clarified by research undertaken by Pinellas County Utility in 1991. When black water became more frequent in Seven Springs in 1996, after two new wells were brought on line, the residents of the area approached the Florida Public Service commission for resolution of the problem. Instead of undertaking a thorough independent investigation, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the PSC abdicated their responsibility and all too eagerly accepted the utility's false explanations for that phenomenon. Along with Aloha, the PSC placed the blame for black water exclusively on events in the homes of the citizens and agreed that what happened to water after it was delivered to the homes was not the responsibility of the utility, without considering more likely and relevant causes.

This legalistic approach to the problem created enormous delay in the recognition of the need for a different and more appropriate method besides chlorination alone for water processing in Seven Springs where hydrogen sulfide levels in parts of source water are very high. The PSC and DEP had been aware that the inadequate processing of source water containing high levels of hydrogen sulfide was the cause of black water when the PSC adopted this approach.

This lack of commitment at the DEP and PSC to a scientific explanation, but the acceptance of a legal justification, was compounded by total incompetence at the DEP office in Tampa of the audit of the data regularly supplied by Aloha Utilities. Its bureaucratic rather than scientifically critical approach in evaluating the accuracy of the data provided by Aloha resulted in a negligent and cavalier attitude at the utility toward maintaining adequate chlorine levels in the water supplied to the citizens. Even the top officials of DEP who knew better, did not insist that the PSC declare the sole processing method of chlorination and its poor implementation as totally inadequate to meet even the lowest standards necessary for the protection of the interests of the citizens of Seven Springs and the integrity of their property.

What is more troubling than either of these failures is the total disregard by the PSC of the evidence submitted by the citizens of Seven Springs who reviewed archival evidence obtained from Aloha's own processing records and the data supplied to the DEP. The evidence indicated that the utility was disinterested in and incapable of processing water, as it should have been done taking into account the characteristics of source water. In spite of the plea of the citizens and their legislative representative, Sen. Mike Fasano, to take urgent action to protect the citizens from the inadequate performance of the utility, the PSC accepted the delaying tactics of Aloha for a period of over six years under the claim that it could not take more drastic action because legal reasons prevented it from doing so.

This abdication of responsibility was not limited to the state government, but also involved the Pasco County government, which was authorized by the state Legislature through a specific bill signed into law in 2005 by Gov. Jeb Bush to ensure that the citizens of Seven Springs were supplied with drinkable water. Threatened by Aloha with a legal suit, the county withdrew an ordinance it had passed to protect the citizens. Meanwhile, thousands citizens suffered through black water, the stinking smell of rotten eggs in their homes and corroding pipes for another four years.

Like the recent meltdown in the financial markets — the result from financial institutions being left to themselves to ensure integrity in their practice of free enterprise — the citizens of Seven Springs now, in addition to the financial and emotional stress of the past 16 years, have the monetary burden of bailing out themselves from the carelessness of a utility whose primary interest was in making as much profit as possible while loudly claiming to provide clean, clear and safe drinking water.

Whenever a government does not place the interest of its citizenry as its primary and only purpose, it becomes a burden instead of an aid to the people it claims to serve. The history of black water in the Seven Springs area of Pasco County for 16 years is a glaring example of a government that failed its citizens. If nothing else, through its governor and the commissioners of Pasco County government, the state of Florida owes the citizens of Seven Springs an apology for the dereliction of their duty to the citizens.

V. Abraham Kurien, an Aloha customer, lives in the Seven Springs area of southwest Pasco County.

Florida government failed Aloha Utilities customers for years 03/24/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 24, 2009 8:30pm]
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