Still reeling from a scandal involving racial harassment, the Hernando County Utilities Department finds itself knee-deep in another mess. This one, however, could have endangered the physical health of more employees, as well as unsuspecting residents.
In the course of their investigation into the racial incidents, which resulted in the discipline of three employees for insensitive, hateful behavior, county officials learned that Utility Department workers placed themselves and others at risk by occasionally disposing of sewage and sludge in unauthorized places. One employee said he had dumped between 12,000 and 16,000 gallons of the effluent on the ground at the Hernando Beach wastewater treatment plant. Another said sometimes crews dumped the human waste on the side of the road to save the time it would take to haul it to a lift station or the landfill, which is where it should have been taken.
Utilities Department director Joseph Stapf said the state Department of Environmental Protection was notified when the sewage was disposed of improperly, and the DEP confirmed that it has inspected the sites and will issue a report when its investigation is complete. Stapf also said the sewage was cleaned up later, as much as it could be.
It is some consolation that this lapse in protecting the public's health is being thoroughly examined and, from all appearances, dealt with promptly. But it is sickening to think that anyone could have traipsed through that bacteria-rich muck without even knowing the risk they were taking.
It is even more incredible that Utilities Department workers said they sometimes did not wear protective gear, as recommended by state and federal health regulators, when they moved the sewage to and fro. That lack of fundamental safety precautions posed a serious threat to their health and possibly that of their families.
In an attempt to explain how the improper dumping could have occurred, Stapf said supervisors in the field sometimes have to make judgment calls about how to proceed, and "that's one of those things that can be easily second-guessed ..."
Perhaps that is a plausible defense, but as administrator David Hamilton has since pointed out, this occurrence is another example of why it is so important to have uniform policies and procedures at every level of a government organization. It will not eliminate the need for qualified supervisors to make common-sense decisions, he said, but it will make their decisionmaking process more consistent and ensure greater accountability for the outcome.
For now, the public must wait for the DEP investigation to clear the air regarding this latest unpleasantness wafting through the Utilities Department.