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"I wouldn't want to drink it'

The county's top health official and the region's top environmental regulator say Aloha Utilities' water meets quality standards.

But they wouldn't down a glass of it on even the hottest of days.

"I wouldn't want to drink it," Dr. Rick Garrity, head of the state Department of Environmental Protection office in Tampa, told representatives from more than a dozen homeowners' associations served by Aloha.

"I wouldn't want to declare the water unhealthy," agreed Dr. Marc Yacht, head of Pasco County's Health Department. "But I, like Rick, wouldn't drink it."

Their comments came at a meeting Monday held at state Rep. Mike Fasano's office. Fasano, an Aloha customer, has been representing other Aloha customers who have long complained that their water is discolored, foul-smelling and filled with sediment.

A report released last week by the staff of the state Public Service Commission laid most of the blame for the problem on copper piping in customers' homes. The report recommended that homeowners replace copper piping and, to help the problem of copper corrosion, the report recommended that Aloha be ordered to adjust pH levels in the water.

The PSC is expected to vote Nov. 4 on that recommendation.

But Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and representatives from more than a dozen homeowner associations who attended the meeting said the problem starts at Aloha's water treatment plant and its wells.

Several of the homeowner association presidents said people with plastic piping have experienced problems. One said that people have complained to him that their water meters are turning black.

"That's long before the copper pipes," said Henry Wells.

Fasano also pointed out that the PSC staff report acknowledged that investigators remain "perplexed" that some customers experienced the problem while others do not.

"It can't just be the copper piping," Fasano said. "Pasco County (Utilities) serves tens of thousands of customers, the majority of them I presume with copper piping, and they're not getting these problems."

Aloha Utilities serves about 7,200 residential customers in southwest Pasco.

Aloha president Stephen Watford said during a telephone interview that Fasano refused him entrance to Monday's meeting. The water that enters his customers' homes is "crystal clear," according to Watford, and test after test has shown that it meets all lead and copper standards.

"It remains clear to us that Rep. Fasano is playing political games rather than really trying to find a solution to the problem," Watford said. "To us it appears that Rep. Fasano is trying to use the power of his office to influence the Department of Environmental Protection to sanction Aloha Utilities, despite repeated statements by the (agency) that Aloha's water meets state water quality standards."

Yacht suggested that if the water was meeting agency standards, perhaps those standards ought to be changed.

And, Yacht said, the Public Service Commission might want to look at reducing the amount of hydrogen sulfide in the water by forcing Aloha to either add more chlorine to the water or to push air through it as a way to remove gases.

Kenneth Swann, who works under Yacht, agreed. He said the problems Aloha customers are experiencing cropped up after two new wells were opened between 1992 and 1993. Hydrogen sulfide, which can irritate skin, is found in ground water in this area.

Garrity, at the urging of both Fasano and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, promised to do more spot checks of the water.

"If there's a problem, it's a problem of proving that they are not meeting standards so we can go in there and force them to do something," he said.

The group promised to meet monthly to try to solve the problem. Garrity said he would like to invite Aloha to attend the meetings.

"I think Aloha wants to find a solution," he said. "This problem has gone on long enough."

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