Enough raw sewage to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool dumped into the Hillsborough River over a one-week period in January, according to a pollution report released this week.
The estimated 630,000-gallon spill began on Jan. 10 after Tampa Electric reportedly cut the power to a Tampa apartment complex’s lift station, which is a well that pumps wastewater. The utility turned off the power over the complex’s “nonpayment,” according to an investigation summary provided by the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County.
Documents show the station was estimated to be without power for seven days, and the untreated sewage from two apartment complexes — Mirela North and Riverside Palms Apartments — emptied into the river, according to the report. The Hillsborough River is the main source of Tampa’s drinking water.
“This is definitely more sizable than other sewage spills I’ve seen,” said Joseph Kienke, who has worked at the environment commission for more than eight years. Kienke’s team was first made aware of the spill on Jan. 17, and he went out to the scene at 8412 Rio Bravo Court that day.
The lift station was just 20 feet from the river, Kienke said.
A Tampa Electric spokesperson couldn’t confirm or deny whether the utility cut the power because the apartment complex failed to pay its bill, saying customer payment information is confidential. The utility also didn’t answer whether it knew it was cutting power to a lift station.
Kienke said he spoke with an apartment complex employee on-site who was informed by the utility that the power was cut because of a failure to pay. Both apartments pay for the lift station that moves their sewage, but only Mirela North pays the bill directly to Tampa Electric, Mike Braecklein, Riverside Palms’ property manager, told the Tampa Bay Times.
When the environment commission was investigating, the utility said it did not know the account it shut off was servicing a lift station, according to Sam Elrabi, director of the commission’s water department.
A spokesperson for Dasmen Residential, the company that oversees the Mirela North complex, did not immediately respond to an email and phone call seeking comment Thursday.
Braecklein initially reported the spill to the state on Jan. 17, records show, but only listed the amount of sewage spilled as “approximately 1,000 gallons.” That report was amended Wednesday — more than six weeks after the spill ended — to reflect it was actually 630,000 gallons spilled.
Those new details came to light after the commission discovered the spill was “much higher” than first reported. An update to the initial pollution report had to come from the apartment complex, but when the commission pressed them to submit the accurate amount of sewage spilled, Elrabi said they didn’t get a response for weeks.
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County scientists who tested the water quality in the river after the spill Jan. 17 described the water as “grey and turbid,” according to the report. Water samples were taken upstream of the spill at Riverhills Park and downstream at the 40th Street Bridge.
Kienke took the sample closest to the spill and said, “the bacteria counts right where it was going into the river were indicative of sewage.”
The incident was referred to the environment commission’s enforcement department, which is still considering a penalty for the companies that own both apartment complexes.
“There will definitely be penalties for the discharge,” Kienke said.