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Sewer tanks may fail, report says

A consultant says there is a "strong likelihood" that the fiberglass tanks Hillsborough County bought to install in its Ruskin-Wimauma sewer system will not be suitable for long-term use. Fiberglass Structural Engineering Inc. was hired to test several hundred sewage collection tanks planned for the system after nine of the tanks collapsed two weeks ago. In a preliminary report Friday, the company said the county might face more failures.

As a result, officials are delivering letters notifying 424 residents who already have the tanks installed in their yards that the county will provide barricades to keep people and vehicles off the area to prevent further collapses.

"They (the consultants) are questioning the design of the tanks and are also questioning the way they were manufactured," said county spokesman Mike Foerster. "So based on that, to be very safe and not take any chances with the health and safety of our citizens, we decided to place barricades over the buried tanks."

Officials might have made a costly mistake when they decided to use fiberglass tanks already ordered for the system instead of shopping for new ones when they hired a new contractor.

Nine tanks have collapsed since Oct. 11, forcing officials to suspend most work on the problem-plagued sewer project while they inspect the others.

Six of the collapsed tanks were in use, and the three others were being installed.

Officials and consultants have since inspected more than 100 tanks, and many are flawed. "We don't know how this is going to turn out," said project manager Ed Fox.

The tanks were made by Skyhawk Inc., a Sarasota company with a factory in Palmetto. Skyhawk was chosen by SEU Construction Inc., the former contractor that was fired from the sewer project, Fox said.

Kimmins Contracting has since taken over the construction contract. But to save money and avoid more delays, county officials decided to keep the Skyhawk tanks. "We made a business decision," Fox said.

Some tanks have Fiberglas walls that are thinner than the quarter-inch specified by contract, according to the county report. Others have walls that are thicker in some areas and thinner in others, Fox said.

The consultant's report received Friday says the tanks might not be suitable "even if they are constructed in strict compliance with the design and specifications."

Skyhawk referred all calls to president J. Homer Edmonson, who was unavailable Friday.

The $23-million sewer system, partly financed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is intended to stop groundwater pollution caused by septic tank runoff.

Unlike traditional sewers, the system collects waste in tanks, then pumps the liquid waste into a wastewater treatment plant. County utility crews clean the solid waste out of the tanks.

Citizens for a Fair Sewer Plan, a property owners organization in south Hillsborough, has alleged for years that the design is faulty, the work is shoddy, and the county has not taken proper steps to reimburse property owners for the land being used for sewer lines.

Clarence Conover, former president of the organization, said he was not surprised that the tanks failed.

"The County Commission was advised of faulty tanks over a year ago," Conover said. "They ignored us."

This past summer, the EPA began investigating the organization's complaints about the reimbursement program, which is regulated by federal law. That inquiry is still under way, said Hagan Thompson, an EPA spokesman in Atlanta.

An inspector visited Hillsborough County last week to examine the collapsed tanks, and the agency hopes to have a report by next week, Thompson said.

Fox said it will take at least two weeks to determine how extensive the tank flaws are, and how many will have to be replaced. More than 400 of the 1,500 tanks are already in the ground.

Fox said he doubts the county will scrap the sewer project. "There is too much in the ground dollar-wise."

_ Staff writer Jennifer Orsi contributed to this story.

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