Keith Bodeker, Belleair’s director of public works, fills his thermos from taps in Town Hall every day.
He says he has “full faith and confidence” in the town’s drinking water system, which pulls from seven wells and distributes about 800,000 gallons daily.
Belleair officials assure its 4,100 residents their drinking water is safe, but for nearly two years, the water has tested for unlawful levels of trihalomethanes, a disinfection byproduct linked to certain cancers and other diseases when consumed in high amounts over a lifetime.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection placed the town under a consent order in November to fix the problem, but concerns over the cost are delaying a solution.
One option is for Belleair to abandon its wells and connect to Pinellas County’s distribution system. Another is to build a reverse osmosis plant, which would treat the water more thoroughly. Either one would also solve another long-running problem the town is having with rising levels of salt in its water.
Town officials, however, are challenging the accuracy of the county’s $1.4 million estimate for what Belleair would have to pay to join its system. And they’re not eager to spend a projected $12 million on a new plant.
As time goes by, nothing in the state order prevents the town from distributing water that fails to meet legal standards.
Belleair has sent quarterly notices to residents about the levels of trihalomethanes, as required by the state. The public should be aware of problems with their drinking water, even when it takes many decades for health issues to become a concern, according to a Florida Department of Health fact sheet on trihalomethanes.
But Belleair officials are trying some smaller steps to bring the levels of trihalomethanes down, giving them time to weigh their options for a long-term fix.
“This is a problem that requires a solution that, right now, our plant is not equipped to handle,” said Town Manager JP Murphy. “This is a problem we’re having on the macroeconomic level. Our plant needs to be replaced.”
With wide, manicured streets, two private golf courses and stately homes overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, Belleair is nestled between Clearwater to the north and Belleair Bluffs to the south.
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The state’s consent order required the town to hire an engineer and develop an action plan with interventions to get trihalomethanes under control. Belleair enlisted the firm McKim & Creed, which said in an April 4 memo that it believes the strategies now underway, like flushing the lines and adjusting chemical levels, will bring the town into compliance.
But the problem has persisted since at least July 2020, according to Florida Department of Environmental Protection records.
Trihalomethanes, a group of chemicals, can form when chlorine used for disinfecting reacts with organic matter, like grass and leaves, in the water. They’ve been linked to cancer and other diseases related to the liver, kidney and central nervous system. But federal regulations set the limits so low that a person could drink two liters of water per day for 70 years and see little or no effects.
The law limits trihalomethanes to 80 micrograms per liter; Belleair’s water has tested above that standard since July 2020 and steadily increased. The highest reading so far was almost double the federal standard in February, according to state records.
Of the 5,000 drinking water utilities in the state, 25 are under consent orders for having disinfection byproducts over the legal limit, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Belleair is the only utility with the problem in the greater Tampa Bay area.
Treatments like the blend of chlorine and ammonia Belleair uses are required “to eliminate the kind of microscopic organisms that can kill you in a week,” said Paul Chadik, associate professor emeritus in the University of Florida’s environmental engineering sciences department.
But town officials have been unable to get the byproduct of that process under allowable levels.
Greg Turman, Belleair’s lead water plant operator, suspects the issue could be related to the other problem affecting Belleair’s water supply.
For more than a decade, chloride concentrations have been rising in the town’s system as groundwater along Florida’s coast has become saltier. While the chemical can affect taste and color, it isn’t toxic by itself.
Chlorine used in the treatment process can react with bromide, an element naturally present in saltwater, to form bromoform, one of the four trihalomethane compounds. Bromoform is the most prevalent trihalomethane appearing in Belleair’s water, leading Turman to believe the chloride increases are contributing to the formation of the byproduct. However, more study would be needed to confirm the connection, he said.
Cities like Clearwater and Dunedin pull water from the same source, the Upper Floridan Aquifer, but are not dealing with the same problems. That’s because they operate reverse osmosis plants, a more advanced purification process that uses membranes to filter out certain molecules and other contaminants.
Belleair’s aeration and filtration process is so outdated that Murphy, the town manager, expects the existing treatment plant will be unable to bring the water to drinking standards for salinity by 2024.
A fix will not be easy or cheap.
In October 2020, engineers from McKim & Creed told the town it needed to build a reverse osmosis plant to handle the rising chloride levels or convert to Pinellas County distribution. The firm said the town had to make a decision by the end of 2020, so if they went with reverse osmosis, a new plant could be online by 2024.
The plant’s $12 million cost could be paid using two low-interest state revolving fund loans administered by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. To pay the facility’s debt and operating costs, the town estimates it would have to increase rates 16 percent for residents by 2024.
Murphy said the town’s $2 million pandemic relief funds are also “absolutely in play.”
The town has also considered selling its operation to a private investor-owned utility, which Murphy said could bring in $3.5 million to $4.5 million.
In late 2020, the town began requesting information from Pinellas County to determine the cost of switching to its distribution system.
The following March, Pinellas County Utilities Director Megan Ross responded that the $27 million in revenue that the county projected it would get from Belleair customers over the first 20 years would be surpassed by expenses of taking over the system.
Ross projected Belleair would have to pay Pinellas $2 million to replace the town’s galvanized and cast iron pipes with the high density polyethylene pipes used in Pinellas’ distribution system.
In December, the county revised its projection using a 30-year cash flow model and more precise data about the 107,203 feet of pipe. The new model still put a negative value on Belleair’s system, estimating the town would have to pay $1.4 million for the conversion.
Murphy pushed back, telling the county in a five-page letter that of the 320 water utility transactions nationwide since 1996, “not one has transferred at a negative value to the seller.” He questioned some of the county’s methodology, including how it omitted growth projections for Belleair.
He said Pinellas County was not considering cash flows beyond the first 30 years, “dramatically undervaluing” the infrastructure that could have a 75-year useful life with the upgrades.
He also argued the county’s desire to replace all infrastructure in the first five years was too aggressive.
The town’s system could have “a value north of $2 million, so you’re talking about a $4 million swing” from the county’s position, Murphy said in an interview.
“The concern was the town of Belleair wasn’t getting fair value for the people’s utility,” he said. “Is the commission being a good steward of the citizens assets? That’s been my marching orders, is go try to negotiate a fair deal.”
Murphy said he expects to have a valuation from the town’s consultant completed this month to present to the county. Ross said she is still going through Belleair’s rebuttals “one by one” with a financial consultant.
Pinellas County, which provides 50 million gallons per day to 14 municipalities and county residents, gets its water from the Tampa Bay Water regional water supply.
Belleair has an emergency connection to the county’s distribution, but Ross said it would be “a little more complicated than just turning on a valve” and providing Belleair residents county water temporarily while the town determines next steps.
Ross said Pinellas would have to perform modeling to ensure the county’s distribution would achieve adequate water quality and pressure in Belleair’s current infrastructure for a temporary connection beyond an emergency period.
Belleair Mayor Mike Wilkinson said quality drinking water is a top priority, but he’s comfortable waiting to make a decision on next steps until the Town Commission receives final details on all options.
“We do want a quick resolution,” he said, “but one that’s also safe and financially feasible.”