FLORIDA--Alarm Raised about Creeping Water Pollution

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Alarm raised about creeping water pollution

A quarter of pollution control permits are expired. Local governments say there's no cause for alarm.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN ) St. Petersburg Times, published March 16, 2000


Several municipal sewer treatment plants in north Pinellas County are part of a trend that has two environmental watchdog groups concerned about the health of the nation's waterways.

But local water superintendents said Wednesday the problem is bureaucratic and there is no cause for alarm.

In a study released this week, the Environmental Working Group and Friends of the Earth, both based in Washington, D.C., report that 25 percent of the permits that force polluters to comply with the federal Clean Water Act are expired.

Of the 42 major permits expired in Florida, for example, four are held by the north Pinellas cities of Clearwater, Largo and Oldsmar, the groups reported, citing numbers from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Also, Belleair and Dunedin were listed among the dozens of minor polluters with expired permits, although a Dunedin official said he is sure his city's permit is current.

In their "Clean Water Report Card," the environmental groups said: "When permits remain expired for years at a time, pollution can continue unchecked, water quality may deteriorate and progress toward the Clean Water Act's ultimate goal of "zero discharge" of pollutants is brought to a standstill."

The report cited an EPA figure that 40 percent of all U.S. waters are not suitable for fishing or swimming.

It places the blame on regulators "who have failed to maintain the legal foundation for improving the quality of the nation's waters."

In Largo, the city's treatment plant at 5100 150th Avenue N pumps wastewater into a lake system in Feather Sound. Its permit expired in December 1995.

But plant manager Joe Carlini said the delay has not hurt water quality.

He said his plant and the state Department of Environmental Protection are completing work on a new five-year permit that will be official in mid-April.

The reason it took so long, Carlini said, goes back to 1995, when federal and state permitting systems became one operation administered by the state. Marrying the regulations of both governments took time, Carlini said. Plus the state, he said, is swamped.

"They're buried," he said. "They have more plants than they've had in the past and they're doing it with the same number of personnel."

He said the state regulator for Largo's plant monitors 60 other facilities as well.

Carlini said residents need not worry, though, for the standards in the old permit are the same as those in the new one.

He had just completed a tour of the plant Wednesday afternoon, at the end of which visitors look down into a 10-foot-deep container filled with highly treated sewer water and can clearly see a dime sitting at the bottom.

In Clearwater, clean water permits for all three of the city's wastewater treatment plants expired in September 1998. But Joe Reckenwald, assistant director of public utilities, said the city put in its application for a new permit before the old one expired and is operating under its old permit.

He said the city is working with the state to complete the permitting process and meanwhile continues to submit monthly reports on the quality of the water that is pumped into Tampa Bay and Stevenson Creek.

He said all three facilities are advanced wastewater facilities that produce a final product that looks like drinking water. "I've swam in rivers that are dirtier," Reckenwald said.

In Dunedin, Public Works Director Bob Brotherton said the city is operating on a current permit, despite what the federal data base says. He said the city went through a two-year permit process with the state that involved "a lot of heart-rending."

"They make it pretty rigorous for everybody," Brotherton said.


-- (Dee360Degree@aol.com), March 16, 2000

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