Saying the state has done too little for too long, two state legislators want environmental regulators to quickly resolve problems at Lindrick Services Corp., a private water and sewer utility serving Gulf Harbors.
Rep. Deborah Prewitt, D-New Port Richey, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, have asked the state Department of Environmental Protection for an explanation of the agency's dealings with Lindrick.
"I sent a letter to them saying that you need to take action now," Prewitt said. "This has gone on and on."
Regulators say Lindrick has for years polluted Cross Bayou by dumping thousands of gallons of treated sewage that is toxic to fish and plant life. The DEP, which has warned Lindrick numerous times, has allowed the utility to continue operating.
Latvala, chairman of the committee overseeing the DEP, said he wonders whether the agency has been affected by politics, as one DEP investigator has alleged.
"When you have a high-power attorney who is politically well-connected, then sometimes they are more effective than your average person would be," Latvala said.
Did that happen here? "That's what I'm trying to figure out," Latvala said. "I'm still in the fact-finding stage."
Lindrick was represented by H. Clyde Hobby's law firm in many of its dealings with the agency. Hobby is a widely known political fund-raiser and friend of Gov. Lawton Chiles' and Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay's. He is also a Pasco County lobbyist on water and transportation issues.
Latvala said he did not want to single out Hobby but said generally he was "referring to the Clyde Hobbys of this world" when he questioned connections between politics and DEP's action or inaction.
Hobby said he didn't know how to respond to Latvala's comments. He said for the most part, Lindrick was represented by another lawyer in his firm. He said he attended one meeting on the matter several years ago and has not been involved since.
As for any delay by the agency, Hobby said that was not unusual.
"They have to try to resolve things," Hobby said. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a utility anywhere that's not the object of ongoing actions by the DEP."
Hobby said he was baffled by the comment, printed in a Times article in August, from the DEP investigator in charge of the Lindrick case.
"We know just who Clyde Hobby is," the investigator, Dave MacColeman, told the Times then. "He's a friend of the governor. He's a friend of Buddy MacKay. We don't want to upset the governor. So we're even more careful."
This summer, the agency set a Dec. 15 deadline for the utility to solve its problems. Regulators say the problems include saltwater intrusion caused by leaky pipes and inadequate treatment and disposal of effluent.
Since then, the utility has started negotiations with the city of New Port Richey and with Pasco County to treat Lindrick sewage.
If those negotiations succeed, the utility could stop discharging wastewater into the Gulf of Mexico in two to three years, Lindrick president Joseph Borda wrote in an October letter to the agency. The letter asked the agency to hold off taking action against the utility until an agreement could be reached.
Ed Snipes, manager of the domestic water management program in DEP's Tampa office, seems willing to delay any action against Lindrick.
"Technically, most people agree that's probably the best solution," Snipes said. "If there was a date certain for that to happen, I think that would be best."
New Port Richey Mayor Pete Altman said he has not heard from Lindrick in weeks. But Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand said the county is setting a bulk-rate price for the county to treat the utility's wastewater.
Hildebrand, who is a Gulf Harbors resident served by Lindrick, supports such a move. But she, too, wants to "move things along."
"There's been a lot of talking and planning," she said. "But plans still have to be put in action."
Snipes said there is nothing his agency can do until the Dec. 15 deadline. Even then, he said, the agency could go into long negotiations before eventually taking court action.
In the meantime, Borda is cooperating with his agency, Snipes said, and has made a number of improvements to the wastewater treatment plant.
Borda has declined to talk to the Times. But Hobby said Lindrick engineers "are working feverishly" to solve the problems.
Latvala is not so sure that the agency cannot move more swiftly.
He pointed to the agency's quick response when a gambling boat moved into Crystal River without the proper permits.
And he said the cities of Dunedin and Tarpon Springs have recently been ordered to pay significant fines because of problems at their municipal utilities.
"I think when the DEP sets their mind to stop something," he said, "they usually succeed."