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Question of open sewage shouldn't even be asked

The question did not need to be asked. Yet, for those of you who were not in our newsroom earlier this week, it bears repeating: Why is this a story?

The answer: "We happen to feel that people living with human waste in their yard is news."

At least that's what reporter Marlene Sokol told a spokesman for the U.S. Shelter Corp., which is manager and part owner of four apartment complexes in Tampa _ apartment complexes that have roughly 500 units, many of them serving as subsidized housing.

At the heart of this sad landlord-tenant confrontation is untreated sewage that spills haphazardly into the walkways and front doors of tenants at Columbus Court at Columbus Drive and Rome Avenue, Johnson Court and Kenneth Court at E 43rd Street and Hillsborough Avenue, and Central Court at 2510 Central Ave.

Much is in dispute here.

Management says it occurs three times a year.

Tenants say it happens many weekends at Columbus Court.

Management blames the residents _ at all four complexes _ for stuffing the wrong things in the commodes.

Or in U.S. Shelter manager Brian May's words: "They live filthy."

Tenants say they don't understand why their apartment complex commodes and piping are so different from those at the rest of the apartment complexes in the county.

One plumbing contractor did try to answer the question of why filth was backing up into the yards at Columbus Court. U.S. Shelter's one-time plumber says the sewage pipes for the complexes aren't positioned properly and, consequently, cause sewage to back up in and around the apartments. Even Redi-Rooter said the tenants and what they put in their commodes don't help the situation.

Yet, I'm left wondering what makes tenants at U.S. Shelter Corp. complexes so different from people who live in other public-housing complexes throughout the city who don't report such chronic sewer problems.

Redi-Rooter came up with estimates to fix the plumbing problem years ago, according to president Tom Censullo. Redi-Rooter no longer works for the U.S. Shelter because of a bill dispute.

No matter what that dispute might have been, the fact is that the children and adults at U.S. Shelter Corp.'s four apartment complexes must step around human waste to get in and out of their homes.

It is an obstacle that no one in the 1990s should have to face in the richest country in the world.

The story itself has been going on for years, unreported it seems to the proper authorities with residents left to fend for themselves.

One woman told of having to wash her dishes in a pan because her kitchen sink backs up with the foul water.

Several talked of keeping their children inside, away from the nasty stew outside.

Monday and Tuesday, officials from the federal Housing and Urban Development Department and the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services environmental health section said they were interested.

For those who know some history of public health in this country, the biggest single factor in reaching a healthier population was the nation's effort to get untreated sewage off the streets of our cities at the beginning of the 20th century.

Today untreated sewage is not supposed to run through our streets _ even in neighborhoods where poor people live.

Nevertheless, U.S. Shelter Corp. asked the question about the story.

And the fact that the question was asked is pretty disturbing.

Kevin E. Washington is bureau chief in the Times' Northdale office.

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