TAMPA — They asked why they hadn't been informed earlier.
They wanted to know why the city was even considering replacing a massive sewage pipe through the middle of their island of gated communities, multi-million dollar homes and stunning views of Hillsborough Bay?
But what they really wanted to know was why the city hadn't decided to bypass Harbour Island altogether when it replaces a 54-inch pressurized pipe that carries one-third of the city's sewage from as far away as Seminole Heights to the city's Howard F. Curren sewage plant on Hookers Point.
Many of the more-than 200 island residents who packed a meeting hall at the Tampa Bay History Center on May 16 asked what the island's civic and homeowners associations have been asking for months: Why can't the city run a new pipe in the water around the island?
The sewage pipe — called a force main— was installed through the center of the island in 1951 when it was just a city dump.
City wastewater officials say the huge pipe is corroded and in danger of bursting, which could spill some of the 15 million gallons of sewage that travels through the pipe on an average day.
Harbour Island residents say that's all the more reason to put its replacement away from their homes.
"What you're looking at is tremendous expense in condemnation and other lawsuits," said attorney John Anthony, an island resident. "I understand why it was put there to begin with when nobody lived there. But to put something like that in a neighborhood like this when you have a golden opportunity to put it elsewhere is unfair."
Brad Baird, the city's administrator of public works and utility services, apologized for not being more proactive in informing residents.
"That's on me. We should have done that. I'm sorry about that," Baird said.
But putting a new pipe underwater around the northern and eastern sides of the island requires permits and cooperation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Port of Tampa and other entities, he said.
City officials are still studying possible routes and haven't determined if a water route would even be possible to engineer.
A route will be selected this fall, he said, and residents will have a chance to weigh in.
"You have to look at all the possible options," Baird said, adding that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection requires the city to examine land as well as water routes in their study. "You don't know what the fatal flaws (for each route) are."
No matter where the new force main is located, the existing pipe need to be replaced, Baird said.
"If it fails, it would be catastrophic," he said.
But many residents said they didn't want the city to even contemplate replacing the pipe on the island. They suggested they might bar contractors from using any equipment outside of a narrow easement over the existing pipeline.
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That would be a huge obstacle to overcome, Baird said.
"If everybody decides, 'No, we're not going to let Tampa do this new route — and that's why it's critical to get in put from everybody who lives on the island and works on the island— if we don't do that, it seriously limits what could be feasible to get done. And the alternative is the pipeline ruptures, which none of us want," Baird said.
That didn't go over very well.
"You shouldn't threaten us like that," said a man in the audience.
Another option: Rehab the current line with carbon fiber or other technology without having to rip up the ground. But that method requires an expensive bypass to convey the sewage above ground while work is going on, Baird said.
The city will hold at least two more public meetings and Baird directed residents to call a project hotline (813) 235-4830 with any questions or check out the project website at hiforcemain.com
Other residents wanted to know if Jeff Vinik, the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who is developing the $3 billion Water Street project nearby, is going to pay "his fair share," as one woman asked.
Vinik is required to pay development and impact fees, Baird said.
The project will cost at least $25 million to replace about 1.7 miles of pipe. Mayor Bob Buckhorn leaves office early next year so a new mayor likely will make the final call on the project.
One candidate to replace him showed up at the meeting to listen — retired banker and philanthropist David Straz Jr.
"I came to hear about this project and the citizens' concerns with the problem. I'm getting it loud and clear," Straz said.
Contact Charlie Frago at email@example.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.