DEP mediating dispute between utilities over water outages
ZEPHYRHILLS - The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is working to resolve a dispute between Labrador Utilities and the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative over who is responsible for the recent spate of water outages at Forest Lake Estates. Ana Gibbs, external affairs manager for the DEP, said the agency has been inundated with complaints from Forest Lake Estates residents over the outages and the length of time it took Labrador to issue subsequent boil-water notices. "We will be working as a liaison to address these items, in addition to helping improve communications between the facility and the community," she said. The 900-home neighborhood just off County Road 54 is served by Labrador Utilities, a private, for-profit water company. There have been six water outages since the company installed new pumping equipment on Dec. 14, including ones on Christmas and New Year's Day. "We lost water again Saturday morning," homeowner Mike Larkin said. "We're under another boil-water notice. We had a dinner for 200 people at the clubhouse Saturday, and we had to go out and buy ice and bottled water to make coffee."Patrick Flynn, regional director for Labrador Utilities, said the new pumps are "more sensitive" to variations in the voltage level on the power lines that supply the distribution system. "We're also having power supply issues with our wastewater treatment plant," Flynn said. "The equipment we installed has worked perfectly fine when the incoming power is within range." The problem isn't electrical surges, but the opposite. "It's when there's a dip in voltage — our equipment shuts down." The power company says it's not to blame. "There was no problem on our side," said David Lambert, member relations manager for the electric co-op. "We have done everything we can do. We upgraded the transformer out there to a larger transformer. We even put a second set of data collectors on the line, and we couldn't find anything wrong on our end." Flynn said there were two outages after Withlacoochee replaced the transformer. "The incoming power is not adequate to meet the requirements for our equipment," Flynn said. "We're trying to identify and correct the issues out there as quickly as we can to have adequate, reliable service." Gibbs said the DEP usually gets called in to verify that boil-water notices are issued in a timely manner, but in this case, "some of the items we are trying to address are outside our regulatory authority." Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano also has reached out to the residents and plans to meet with homeowners association leaders. He sits on a study committee that will recommend changes to the laws that regulate for-profit water utility companies like Labrador. The association has been embroiled in a lawsuit with Labrador since 2008 for alleged breach of contract. Labrador raised water and sewer rates in 2009 and 2012. The association has asked the city of Zephyrhills to annex Forest Lake Estates, and City Manager Jim Drumm said he will bring the matter up for discussion at a Zephyrhills City Council meeting this month. But Drumm said even if the city annexes Forest Lake Estates, "that's not a guarantee of us taking over their utilities."
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