Tampa Electric is pointing the finger at one of its customers for not disclosing to the utility it had a private wastewater pump station on its account before the utility cut off power over an unpaid bill — resulting in a weeklong January spill that dumped an estimated 630,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Hillsborough River.
In a letter to Tampa Mayor Jane Castor Monday, Tampa Electric CEO Archie Collins also said the utility would commit to communicating with the City of Tampa and the county’s Environmental Protection Commission before it disconnects a customer it knows has a sewage pump station in the future.
Collins added the utility also will contact other Tampa Electric business customers and ask them to inform the utility whether they have a sewage pump station on their property.
In the letter, Collins assigned responsibility to the owner of the Mirela North apartment complex, claiming “if we had been made aware that the account included a private lift station, we would have done everything possible to avoid disconnection.” If customers don’t provide that information, the utility can’t identify the equipment, he said.
The January spill is estimated to have lasted seven days after the utility cut power to the lift station shared by Mirela North and Riverside Palms Apartments on Jan. 10, county records show. Enough sewage to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool emptied into Tampa’s main source of drinking water.
Collins said before Tampa Electric cuts a customer’s power, it will send a written notice separate from a monthly utility bill, and customers “may also receive an automated and/or manual telephone call.” When asked by the Tampa Bay Times Monday, neither Tampa Electric nor representatives from the apartment immediately provided a record of the utility’s notification that it would cut the power.
In an email, utility spokesperson Kim Selph said “we followed our protocol for customer notification as described in the letter.” Apartment complex representatives did not respond to emails and text messages seeking a response to Tampa Electric’s claims.
Selph also said the utility’s records show the registered property owner is Riviera TFL LLC, which shares the same address as the location where the spill was reported by a Mirela North employee, according to Hillsborough County Property Appraiser records.
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Collins’ response came after Mayor Castor sought information on Tampa Electric’s protocols for shutting off power to apartment pump stations in a letter to Collins Friday — one day after learning about the spill from a Tampa Bay Times report.
Castor wanted clarity on the utility’s protocols “so that we may be able to help prevent this from happening in the future,” she wrote.
“If TECO does plan to cut power and you think critical infrastructure may be impacted, we request you communicate with the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission and out of courtesy, the city, to help properly prepare,” Castor wrote.
Tampa Electric wouldn’t confirm or deny whether the power was cut off because of an unpaid utility bill, citing customer confidentiality, but environment commission officials told the Times last week the power loss was over the apartment complex’s unpaid bill. An investigation document also cites a “nonpayment” as the reason TECO staff ordered the power to be shut off.
“When the City finds out months after a raw sewage spill, we are only able to rely on routine water quality sampling to assess any threat to our community,” Castor wrote in the letter.
It’s not the first time sewage has emptied into the Hillsborough River from this lift station, records show.
The day after the Jan. 17 spill ended, an Environmental Protection Commission employee emailed Tampa Electric asking when the power was cut to the lift station, according to messages obtained by the Times. The same pump station that just leaked sewage into the river had caused problems in the past, according to an email sent by Daniel Moore, an environmental manager at the commission.
On May 7, the station overflowed “due to an electrical issue” which caused the pump’s breakers to trip. Over a 24-hour period, an estimated 90,000 gallons of raw sewage emptied into the river, according to Joseph Kienke, an environmental supervisor at the commission.
Mirela North’s maintenance staff ultimately reset the switches and stopped the spill, Kienke said.
Sam Elrabi, director of the commission’s water department, declined to comment on the letters between TECO and the mayor, saying the agency is an “outside party” to the conversation.
Tampa Bay Water spokesperson Brandon Moore said the spill was downstream of the utility’s intake canal, so the spill wouldn’t have affected the regional water supply.
In a statement, The Tampa Water Department said it’s intake pumps are downstream of where the spill occurred, but said their treatment process would have killed off viruses and bacteria.
Below: Read Tampa Electric’s letter to Mayor Jane Castor regarding the January sewage spill