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Utility needs to keep customers informed

Lindrick Utilities needs to get its story straight. When it does, the private water company should put public safety as the top element of its story line instead of treating its customers as annoying characters in some half-baked subplot.

Since Hurricane Jeanne came through Pasco County Sunday with wind gusts knocking out electrical service to more than 103,000 customers, Lindrick has offered contradictory and implausible statements about its own actions in dealing with the power outage.

Lindrick's utility manager said Tuesday the company didn't need to tell its 2,700 west Pasco customers to boil water because it hadn't lost pressure completely so its chlorine system continued to function. Other utilities that lost power used generators to run water and sewer pumps or told customers to boil water as a precaution before using it for drinking or cooking.

The drop in pressure noticed by Lindrick's customers? People were out running their sprinklers and washing their driveways, contended manager Helen McNeil. Yeah, right. Watering the lawn always is a priority after a hurricane drops several inches of rain on a locale.

A day later, Lindrick president Joe Borda said the utility had issued the boil water order after it lost power Sunday. He said the utility issued the notice by relaying the information to Bay News 9, a television news outlet available only to cable subscribers.

In other words, the boil water notice was dispersed so widely, Lindrick's own utility manager was unaware of it. So, too, were the customers who contacted the company Tuesday and Wednesday asking if they needed to boil their water.

Do what you want, but there is no mandatory boil order, customers said they were told. Customer Beverly Schubis said she called Wednesday and an employee told her the county and media were hyping the boil water notice. Gee, it's kind of hard to hype a boil water order if you don't know about it.

Again, the utility sent a muddled message. Borda told St. Petersburg Times' staff writer Bridget Hall Grumet that it is common knowledge to boil water when "you're shut down like that." So common, apparently, that the utility felt no need to notify all media outlets of the order until Wednesday.

The subterfuge didn't end there. Borda also said the utility asked for help from Pasco County, the city of New Port Richey, the Public Service Commission, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Southwest Florida Water Management District. He forgot to call in the U.S. Marines or try the Bat Signal.

According to Borda, every government agency charged with overseeing water quality or running its own utility turned a deaf ear to Lindrick's request for assistance. The story is incredulous. Are we really supposed to believe Lindrick notified five separate agencies it needed help, but didn't bother telling its customers to boil water?

New Port Richey utility director Tom O'Neil said the city never heard from Lindrick. That is disappointing considering the city has the capability of providing a backup water source for Lindrick's customers. No wonder Lindrick's actions (or inaction) caught the attention and the ire of state Rep. Heather Fiorentino.

The utility has a responsibility to provide its customers with safe drinking water and to notify the public when it is unable to do so. Lindrick's evolving explanations are inexcusable. The PSC needs to ensure the episode isn't repeated the next time the power goes out.