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Recurring sewage leaks frustrating to residents

Published Oct. 16, 2005

Human waste was strewn on the ground between Buildings 7 and 8 at Columbus Court, a subsidized housing complex in central Tampa. Tenants stepped cautiously around feces and toilet paper. Parents tried to keep their children from playing in the turgid streams.

The problem is not new. Tenants said it has existed for years. Workers repair the plumbing, but it breaks down again.

This weekend, the weather was warm and the odor wafted to the second and third floors.

"You can catch something from that stuff," said 18-year-old Lenise Ford, turning up her nose. "We don't even like to open up our windows."

Columbus Court, a 21-year-old complex at Columbus Drive and Rome Avenue, is privately owned but most of its 160 units are subsidized under the federal Section 8 program, said manager Velma Adams. It is managed by U.S. Shelter Corp., based in Greenville, S.C.

Ms. Adams, who has worked there about two years, is well-liked and prides herself on having kept it relatively drug-free. A grassy lot overlooks the Hillsborough River. Across the river are waterfront homes. To the right is downtown Tampa.

But spoiling it, for some, is the sewage.

"Most of the time I wouldn't even let my children come out," Darryl Gordon said. "They see water, and they might say, "Let's go play in it.'


Benny Williams, a roofer, said he has seen children with open sores on their arms and legs, possibly from the sewage.

Mary Smiley said she does not wash her dishes in the kitchen sink. The sewage some

times backs up into her kitchen and bathroom. "Years ago, I bought this big pan, and I just fill it up with water to do my dishes," she said.

City and state officials said Monday that they were unaware of the problem or that it fell outside their jurisdiction.

Ralph Metcalf, director of the city sewer department, said his agency cannot do much because the private pump station is not part of the city system.

David Adams, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services's environmental health unit, said his staff in Tampa was unaware of any problem, but that they would check into it.

At the Tampa Housing Authority, Section 8 officials said the complex comes under a separate Section 8 program managed from a Jacksonville field office.

Ms. Adams said the residents who complained were exaggerating. What's more, she said, they help cause the problem by pouring and flushing grease, diapers, even hairbrushes, clothes and toys into the delicate system.

"I give them a warning and they listen for a while, then they get careless," she said. "You should see what we pull out of those pipes."

Charles Epps, spokesman for U.S. Shelter, the Greenville, S.C., company that manages the complex, said Monday that the problem occurs about three times a year. Experts have looked at the system, he said, and determined that there is nothing wrong with it.

In a January newsletter, Ms. Adams warned the tenants that they would be fined $25 if they abused the pipes. The warning worked for several months, she said.

She said she's thinking of issuing another bulletin.