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Why did government fail these poor people? | Editorial

The story of a Clearwater mobile home park and its water issues reflects a systemic breakdown.

Some systems are simply broken. The story of Clearwater’s Southern Comfort mobile home park represents the very worst of government bureaucracy, where repeated notices by state and county officials of bacteria near the source of the mobile home park’s tap water led to no action. Now the only action left is to remove these residents from their homes — for some, the only homes they can afford — by shutting the whole place down.

It should never have come to this. The drinking water conditions at Southern Comfort Mobile Home Park were so bad that residents grew accustomed to buying bottled water, knowing that the tap water was not potable, reported the Tampa Bay Times’ Kavitha Surana. They weren’t surprised by brown or odorous water. One resident had to bathe her children with bottled water and baby wipes because her two eldest developed rashes and peeling skin that they believe comes from the dirty tap water. At one time, nearly 500 people lived in the park, but now only about 12 families remain. Why did they stay? “Conformismo” is what one resident called it: “You’ll settle for what is happening around you. You won’t demand more. I think that’s what we are seeing around here.”

This was a total bureaucratic failure. The first documentation of an issue with the park’s wastewater treatment plant came as early as 1972, nearly 50 years before the park’s upcoming closure. Yet over decades no improvements were made. In 2010, the state Department of Environmental Protection filed a lawsuit against the plant owner, claiming the waste and bacteria in the water was too high and that untreated or inadequately treated sewage could run off into the ground. That, in turn, could have leaked into the well that was the source of the park’s drinking water, according to experts.

Still no action was taken, a recurring theme of this entire sad story. The park’s owner did hire a lab to test monthly water samples in the distribution line only once was bacteria found, in 2018, but it was determined a “false positive,” said the state. A year earlier, the Pinellas Department of Environmental Protection Division tested the creek behind the park after a resident complained. It found levels of bacteria, like E. Coli and fecal coliform, that were “off the charts,” the director said. The park was fined $17,508, but still nothing changed. After all, that division only controlled the creek, not the park’s tap water. But this kind of bureaucracy, where each agency points the finger at the other, is unacceptable. That so many government agencies were in the loop about this mobile home park, for almost 10 years, and yet nothing changed for these residents is ridiculous.

Now the few residents who remain are being told they must leave. When at least one family was paying $658 a month to rent the land under their mobile home, comparable prices are limited and many feel it would be too expensive to simply move their mobile homes. It’s hard to find housing under $1,000 for a family of five in many parts of Pinellas County.

It’s important this situation is coming to light. These families who, for so long, have been ignored and allowed to live in plain sight in deplorable conditions. Now they are told they must leave even when some of them feel they have nowhere to go.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news