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State could fine Pinellas County Utilities $10,000 for 300,000-gallon raw sewage spill

The July spill sent dirty wastewater spewing into an unincorporated Pinellas County neighborhood.
Sandbags and runoff were seen in the driveway of a home located along 53rd Avenue North just east of Duhme Road on July 22 in unincorporated Pinellas County. About 300,000 gallons of untreated wastewater spilled.
Sandbags and runoff were seen in the driveway of a home located along 53rd Avenue North just east of Duhme Road on July 22 in unincorporated Pinellas County. About 300,000 gallons of untreated wastewater spilled. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Nov. 4

Pinellas County Utilities could be required to either pay $10,000 or agree to complete an environmental enhancement project after a July sewage spill spread 300,000 gallons of untreated wastewater throughout a Pinellas County neighborhood.

A typical summer Sunday morning was ruined with filthy water, sandbags and insurance adjusters after a pipe running through the neighborhood near the intersection of 53rd Avenue North and 110th Street burst.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection told the Tampa Bay Times in July that the agency would determine if the South Cross Bayou Advanced Water Reclamation Facility had violated regulations. Now, a spokesperson says a penalty will be delivered in a quarterly letter in the coming weeks.

The penalty for spills that exceed more than 100,000 gallons is $10,000 per day, according to state environmental records. The spill in Pinellas County averaged roughly 18 gallons per second for 4½ hours, meaning the county is on the hook now for $10,000. Either the utility pays the fine or elects to complete an improvement project at 1½ times the cost, said state environmental spokesperson Brian Humphreys.

Pipes are seen along 53rd Avenue North just east of Duhme Road on July 22 in unincorporated Pinellas County. bout 300,000 gallons of untreated waste water had spilled.
Pipes are seen along 53rd Avenue North just east of Duhme Road on July 22 in unincorporated Pinellas County. bout 300,000 gallons of untreated waste water had spilled. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The utility typically opts for choosing the environmental enhancement project over paying the fine, according to Megan Ross, Pinellas County director of utilities.

“Our preference is to invest in our infrastructure to help mitigate these types of events,” Ross wrote in an email. That’s normally the precedent after large spills, but that’s not set in stone because the state hasn’t sent the penalty letter yet. The penalty letters are issued at the end of each quarter, but additional time is sometimes needed to gather information about a particular sewage spill, Humphreys said.

The utility is expecting the notice from the state within the next few weeks, and “will comply with the requirements set forth by (the Florida Department of Environmental Protection),” said Nory Hancock, the plant operations division director for Pinellas County utilities.

The county determined that aged and corroded concrete caused the pipe break, Hancock wrote in an emailed statement. To prevent future spills, Pinellas County Utilities is using modeling “to identify system issues and plan for improvements before system failure,” and is lining pipes to make the infrastructure more reliable.

The discharge stemming from the water reclamation facility at 7401 54th Avenue N totaled approximately 305,200 gallons, according to the state.

The utility notified the state about the spill July 17, the day it happened, according to Humphreys. The section of pipe was repaired, the road was restored and disinfectant was distributed to the affected area. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection followed up with a warning letter five days later, state records show.

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“Please be advised that this warning letter is part of an agency investigation, preliminary to agency action,” wrote Kelley Boatwright, the southwest district director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

“We look forward to your cooperation in completing the investigation and resolving this matter.”

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