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County never told man his well was contaminated

The county incinerator scares plenty of folks who live nearby, but Glen Wilburn isn't one of them.

Thanks to the incinerator, the property across the street from Wilburn's pretty brick house is all fixed up. When Wilburn, who is 73 and suffers from health problems, has needed help around his farm, the plant's superintendent has often lent a hand.

And one day last fall, that same man, Wilburn's friend Ron Walker, showed up and told Wilburn he was going to dig him a new well. Wilburn had quit drinking the water about four months earlier because it tasted and looked awful.

"He told me it was rust, that's what Ron told me, and that they'd like to have a new well to test every once in awhile," Wilburn said. "He's been awful nice."

But Walker's superiors now say Wilburn got a new, $8,000 well because they feared they had polluted his old one.

"A reasonable person would probably come to that conclusion," said Bruce Kennedy, Pasco County's utility construction and contract management director. "You could spend a lot of time arguing about it, but the reasonable thing to do was to get out in front of it and solve the problem."

So why wasn't Wilburn told?

Doug Bramlett, the county's utility director, isn't sure.

"I'm not sure what Ron told him," Bramlett said."Common sense tells me that that's what should have transpired. He should have been given some indication that we were replacing the well to protect health, safety and welfare, just in case."

Walker had helped perform tests on Wilburn's and another man's wells. The tests indicated both needed to be replaced. It appeared that groundwater contamination from the county's incinerator operation had fouled them. Those test results were never shared with Wilburn, and Walker said he wasn't aware of them either.

"I wasn't in on that testing loop," Walker said. "I just knew he had bad water. His old well had practically caved in. He was just tickled pink to get a new well, and I was just tickled pink to be able to give him one."

The groundwater contamination at the plant began in 1991 or 1992, according to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). But the agency didn't step in to force the county to stop until 1996, in part because the contamination wasn't considered particularly health threatening.

But tests showed the contamination violates a federal drinking water standard that has health implications: The water contains high levels of sodium, or salt, which can be a problem for 5 percent of the population.

Wilburn is among that 5 percent. For 18 years, he has suffered from high blood pressure. He is under doctor's orders to watch his salt intake and takes medication. He buys foods labeled low sodium and uses No Salt seasoning to keep his blood pressure under control.

"If it gets too high, I could just keel over," Wilburn said.

There's no way to know whether Wilburn's well had higher-than-allowed levels of sodium in it; the county didn't test for that. Instead, the water was tested for chlorides, which is the best indicator of how far the groundwater contamination has spread, according to DEP geologist David Rhodes.

The 1997 tests on Wilburn's wells showed that the chloride levels were roughly a third higher than they should be, and about 33 times higher than is naturally found in groundwater in the area. (Chlorides are not a health hazard, but they can cause water to taste, look or smell bad).

Pete Burghardt is the DEP official in charge of forcing the county to clean up the groundwater contamination before it spreads beyond the county's own property.

He didn't know the county had replaced the two private wells.

Wilburn is grateful.

"I think they did a fantastic job," he said. "They really knew what they were doing."