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Features and Series
By Melody Jameson
SUN CITY CENTER -- Looking for potential trouble spots, an ongoing survey of the aging sewer line infrastructure under this community unexpectedly exposed one this week. The result was water bubbling in residential commodes and discharge into a prized lake.
About 24 hours after a break in the line under Del Webb Boulevard West, however, Hillsborough County Water Resource Services (WRS) personnel were awaiting laboratory analyses, not sure the overflow actually contained raw human sewage.
And, while at least two homeowners near the unanticipated eruption reported strong offensive odors in their homes, a day after the event they were expressing more concern for their lake than for themselves.
Events began to unfold Sunday afternoon when an apparent break in the clay or terra cotta sewer pipe under the boulevard in the 1400 block between Bunker Hill and Danforth sent water flowing to where it is supposed to flow from.
The crew of a contractor hired by Hillsborough County to evaluate the aging infrastructure and pinpoint areas in the system requiring remedial work had been working at the site for several days. The inspection process is part of a county-wide project aimed at getting a handle on sewer system conditions in order to schedule repairs, said Richard Cummings, a WRS manager of field maintenance operations. Hillsborough’s sewer line failure rate is in the 12 percent neighborhood, Cummings added, less than the national average.
Dave Brown Photos
As the overflow from an apparently ruptured sewer line under West Del Webb Blvd. wound its way to Middle Lake, it picked up leaves, twigs and other road debris from gutters and storm drains, eventually depositing the detritus on the lip of one of the lake’s seawall outlets. County personnel drew water samples for laboratory testing to determine if the outflow actually contained more than the groundwater accumulated at the sewer excavation site. Supervisors also posted cautionary signage around the lake warning of possible high bacteria levels. No permanent damage as the result of the overflow was reported early in the week.
The West Del Webb excavation site was checked at 12:30 PM Sunday by the contractor and neither odor nor an undue amount of water was observed at the time, Cummings told The Observer Monday.
A little over two hours later, Dave Brown, a resident of Burlington Circle, was reporting a sewer line break. And shortly thereafter, Fred and Jeanne Kroog as well as Bill and Mary Joan Frohlich, whose homes abut the boulevard, were complaining of stench, overflowing water and, in at least one instance, sludge in their bathrooms.
Maintenance crews responded, channeling the excess water into the curb gutters where it flowed into storm drains and then into Middle Lake which is bordered by more than 100 waterfront homes.
Brown questioned whether the overflow could contain raw sewage which then would saturate yards and contaminate the lake, in addition to posing hazards and producing damage to the interior of adjacent homes.
On Monday, however, Cummings said he could not find any evidence at the site that raw sewage had flowed either onto yards or into the lake. He theorized opening of the line pulled water and sand in the excavation pit into the pipe and then pushed it backward toward dwellings before a reverse and overflow occurred.
The sewer lines under the north side of Sun City Center, he noted, now are 40 to 50 years old. Added to this fact are the risks inherent in location of the lines – about 17 feet below the ground surface in sloppy wet sand. If the pipes shift for any reason , the combination of brittle material, advancing age and below ground environment or any one of those factors can produce a crack, a break, a failure, he said. It is this situation which has made evaluation of the SCC infrastructure that was in progress particularly pertinent, he indicated.
As for conditions inside the Kroog and Frohlich homes, Cummings said he met with both homeowners early Monday and was preparing to file claims on their behalf.
However, by late Monday afternoon, Fred Kroog said both the odor and water problems experienced in their house had been satisfactorily alleviated. Similarly, Mary Joan Frohlich , who described the odor that emanated from sinks in her home as “horrendous” and “gagging,” said the emergency had passed with no damage noted. Both the water and a black sludge which had appeared were gone, she added.
Both residents voiced concern, though, for the lake which is used by many boating and fishing enthusiasts who live around it, and hosts several species of wildlife.
As a precaution, Cummings said he moved Monday to post signage around the lake advising caution due to a possible high bacteria level and warning against human consumption of the water. Asked about any threat to wildlife, Cummings replied he could not speak with the expertise of a biologist but that he believes no danger exists for any wildlife living in or on or around the lake.
The manager said he also sent water samples from different spots for lab analysis on Monday and expected preliminary results by the middle of this week. If those results show that the flow into the lake contained human waste rather than being simply excess water from the excavation, he added he may consult with Florida’s Department of Environmental Regulation.
Even if the flow were a genuine sewage spill, he noted, the effects could be expected to dissipate quickly in the 40-acre waterbody. But, in that case, sampling and testing of the water would continue until the former quality was restored, he asserted.
Meanwhile, work to dry out the wet sand in which the sewer line rests under the boulevard is continuing with excess fluids being pumped to the lift station on the former Pretty Park property. Repairs to the broken line will be undertaken as soon as possible, Cummings said. The inspection and evaluation program to locate through video technology other places in the infrastructure requiring attention also is to continue.
©2008 Melody Jameson
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