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Fixing utility's pipes and process is an imperative

A planned $220-million renovation of Pasco County's water and sewer system just got more expensive.

State environmental regulators say millions of dollars worth of additional work is needed and they also are seeking a substantial penalty for past mismanagement by the county. The proposed Department of Environmental Protection consent order and $2-million fine, an average of $28.57 for each of the county's 70,000 customers, is indicative of the severity of the previous transgressions. They include:

+ Eight plants spilling nearly 22-million gallons of raw sewage. Most notably, a substantial breach near Lake Bernadette in east Pasco went undetected for more than a month and sent untreated sewage into a drainage pond leading to Indian Creek and eventually the Hillsborough River.

+ Delivering more than 18-million gallons of treated wastewater for customers' irrigation that did not meet disinfection standards.

+ Doubling the size of the county's Wesley Chapel sewage treatment plant without state approval and ignoring orders to stop the construction.

+ Building an unpermitted pipe to dump stormwater and partially treated wastewater into a tributary of the Hillsborough River. DEP documents indicate retired utilities director Doug Bramlett authorized that construction and his successor, Bruce Kennedy, ordered the pipe valve's use.

Kennedy told St. Petersburg Times staff writer Garrett Therolf the county would seek to negotiate the terms of the consent order, particularly the aggressive timetable established by the state for repairs. He said heavy rainfall triggered much of the system's failures.

Scapegoating Mother Nature is an inadequate response. It fails to explain the arrogance of ignoring DEP's authority on the Wesley Chapel plant expansion, or building and using an illegal pipe. Using secret valves to dump unwanted waste is the kind of activity the county sought to end when it bought up the small privately owned package plants in west Pasco more than two decades ago. Heavy rainfall fails to address the preponderance of rickety pipes and an inadequate inventory of spare parts for repairs at county plants.

The county also must be accountable for its own bumbling. The leak near Lake Bernadette, for instance, continued for 43 days because the utility's operations and maintenance divisions did not coordinate even though personnel at the southeast wastewater treatment plant knew 500,000 gallons of sewage disappeared each day. The leak continued until a DEP inspector found the cracked pipe while answering complaints from nearby residents about the stench from sewage leaking into their pond.

County Administrator John Gallagher has promised changes including a staff reorganization and modernized parts and equipment. That is imperative.

A county loath to slow its construction permits even when it strains its infrastructure must do better than the status quo of an underfunded and poorly maintained utility system.