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Customers may be stuck with DEP fine

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is proposing that county utility customers be fined $2-million as the result of persistent failures by the county-run system to properly dispose of wastewater.

The price tag comes in a proposed consent order that also requires millions of dollars more to be invested in improved and expanded infrastructure. That's in addition to the $220-million the county was already planning to spend over the next five years.

DEP spokeswoman Pamala Vazquez said "this is a large fine" and "quite and extensive order."

No county tax money will be used to pay the expenses related to the order. Instead, the 70,000 home and business customers will be assessed the charges when rates increase in 2007.

The order is still to be finalized in the coming weeks, and Utilities director Bruce Kennedy said the county still hopes the fine amount will be reduced.

In order to accomplish that, Kennedy said the county will present a rebuttal to "substantial portions" of the investigators' findings. The crux of the county's defense, he said, is that the system failures were the result of a heavy rain and out of county operators' control.

Chief among environmental regulators' complaints was a 43-day spill of raw sewage into a small pond at the center of a mobile home community in the Lake Bernadette area of Zephyrhills.

Residents complained to the county about the overwhelming stench that overtook their community during last summer's highest heat, and county workers knew sewage was missing from the system, but 21.2-million gallons were released before the problem was fixed.

Another key finding: Former Utility director Bruce Bramlett quietly authorized construction of an unpermitted pipe that county officials used to dump untold gallons of stormwater and partially treated wastewater into a tributary of the Hillsborough River, from which the city of Tampa gets its drinking water.

Kennedy, the current utility boss, was found to have ordered the valve to be used.

Other violations were described as simply the result of a system that was woefully underfunded and poorly maintained. As a result of these problems, the DEP said millions of gallons of partially treated wastewater was improperly spilled, and the reuse system discharged water that had not been sufficiently disinfected.

Since the violations came to light, the county has moved to expand storage of reuse water so that it is less likely to overflow.

County Administrator John Gallagher has also accelerated plans to reorganize staff.

But the timetable the DEP lays out for future improvements goes much further and involves the completion of so many infrastructure improvements that Kennedy said he worries that it is "unreasonable" and the county will fail.

He said much of the conversation with DEP officials has recently centered on relaxing the timetable for the improvements and allowing for delays caused by contractors and third party objections to the projects.

Otherwise, he said, "we may be standing in the same position in two years."

Garrett Therolf covers Pasco County government. He can be reached at (727) 869-6232 or at