Residents say summertree water quality worse than ever gas weed strain

Ryan is the leader of the Summertree Water Alliance, which has worked for years to improve the quality of water for 1,200 customers in the neighborhood south of State Road 52 in west Pasco. The residents, clad in red T-shirts, had become frequent visitors to the Pasco Commission chambers, complaining about expensive, dark-colored, sulfur-odored water they said was unfit for drinking, bathing or cooking.

Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Simpson, R-Trilby, procured the $1 million appropriation in 2015 to offset the cost of linking Summertree’s private utility provider, Utilities Inc. of Florida, to the county water system. Simpson also tried unsuccessfully to get Utilities Inc. to relinquish its franchise over the area.

Even with the Dec. 21, 2016, connection to the county, the Summertree water contains excessive bacteria and too little chlorine while residents suffer with low pressure at the tap, according to an April 21 report from U.S. Water Services Corp., the New Port Richey company retained by the alliance.

The company offered a series of remedies, including a so-called chlorine burn; killing bacteria feeding on disinfectants in the pipes; a new chlorine feeding system; flushing; better monitoring; removing or replacing back-flow devices to improve water pressure; and better training for the system’s operators.

"Utilities Inc. has not contacted Ms. Ryan and they haven’t disclosed what they’re doing to address the problem. They’re leaving them in the dark. That is not good utility management," said Tallahassee lawyer Brian Armstrong, who represents the Summertree Alliance.

Flip Mellinger, Pasco’s assistant county administrator for utilities, offered similar sentiment in an April 21 letter to the Florida Public Service Commission. Mellinger said the private utility had been continuously flushing water through its distribution system "in a failing attempt to meet minimum disinfectant levels."

The flushing and the company’s "failure to communicate regularly with the Summertree community is causing panic over the quality and reliability of the water supply. Citizens within the Summertree community are now reporting illnesses that they believe are directly related to the water supply."

Mellinger said that the company rejected the county’s offer to help and that Utilities Inc. blamed Pasco County and Tampa Bay Water for the insufficient chlorine levels in the water. He asked the PSC to order the company to fix its system. Ryan’s letter requested state Department of Environmental Protection intervention and blamed Utilities Inc. of Florida for denying Pasco County the opportunity to inspect the private utility‘s pipes before the connection.

John Hoy, president of Utilities Inc. of Florida, responded in an April 26 letter to the PSC that was copied to Ryan, calling Mellinger’s statements "misleading and inaccurate accusations" and said the company’s "testing results indicate that at no time has (the utility) failed to meet required standards regarding bacteria levels in drinking water."

Hoy acknowledged legitimate concerns about the amount of water flushing in the neighborhood but said "any suggestion that we would shirk this responsibility (to provide safe drinking water) is inappropriate, irresponsible and inaccurate, and therefore against the public interest."

The water-quality report and exchange of letters came less than three weeks before a PSC hearing on the private utility‘s request for a rate increase for 27 systems it operates in Florida, including Summertree and two others in Pasco County.

Corcoran and Simpson followed Mellinger’s letter with their own correspondence to the PSC, asking the regulators to penalize the utility in the rate case because of the unsatisfactory water-quality standards. The April 28 letter also asked the PSC to open a new docket "to investigate and resolve these new water issues."