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Wastewater spill at city lift station

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Spillage of 252,000 gallons of wastewater occurred on July 20 – 21, 2022, from the “50 Lift Station,” located on the north side of Cortez Blvd, just west of Broad Street / Hwy 41. According to Director of Public Works Paul Booth approximately 248,000 gallons were recovered and the remaining amount was diluted by heavy rains.

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A lift station pumps wastewater from a lower level to a higher elevation so it can continue downhill to the water treatment facility. There are several lift stations in use throughout Brooksville, as well as Hernando County.

Council member Betty Erhard was informed by a constituent, visited the site, and brought her findings to the attention of the other Council members at the regular City Council meeting held on August 1, 2022. Prior to the City Council meeting, Erhard told The Hernando Sun that while at the site, she learned that 185,000 gallons of wastewater from the lift station were spilled between July 20 – 21, 2022, but the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was not notified until July 26. Erhard said that she observed the city workers onsite at the time wearing inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

The failure of the lift station is attributed to its age. According to Snowberger, two of the pumps are approximately 60 years old. One of the pumps was being replaced when the failure of both occurred. Brooksville has an aging infrastructure and has been upgrading items as the budget allows.

During the conclusion of the discussion, Director of Public Works Paul Booth presented updated figures. 252,000 gallons were actually spilled and approximately 248,000 gallons were recovered. “When we had some heavy rain — and DEP confirms this — that the material remaining was diluted to the point that it would be inert and no longer an issue for the environment or our residents.”

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At the meeting, Erhard began her address by saying, “There should be some accountability. I don’t think demoting, or restructuring a department where two employees continue to earn what they’ve been making with decreased responsibility.”

She was speaking of an email exchange with City Manager Ron Snowberger following her visit to the lift station. In an email addressed to all City Council members on July 27, he wrote that two employees were given different titles and roles, however, “There are currently no payroll changes associated with these strategic moves.”

“Jeremy Burgess will no longer be assigned as the Utilities Director, rather he is being moved to fulfill his role as City Engineer.” Snowberger’s message went on to state that “Danny Brooks will no longer be assigned to Assistant Utilities Director, rather he is being moved to Superintendent of Utility distribution and collections.”

This newspaper obtained a copy of an official written warning to Burgess dated July 29, 2022. No warning was found for Brooks.

When Erhard replied, asking why the two were demoted, Snowberger’s response was, “These are not demotions, they are reclassifications of position and assignment …”

A follow-up email by Snowberger came with a stern warning to Erhard. “It has come to my attention that you have already visited the lift station and spoke directly with employees while they were on duty, regarding work efforts and made negative comments regarding supervisory action pertaining to this work. It has also come to my attention that you offered to take city employees to lunch to further discuss city operations. This is inappropriate and outside your scope of authority in regards to the City Charter and borders harassment of employees and supervision in the performance of their duty. I would ask that you cease and desist interference with city work operations immediately.”

Because Erhard’s address to council members came during the close of the meeting, no official decisions were voted on or directives given. Mayor Pat Brayton said, “I’m not going to say I disagree with you, I will say this; the way the Charter is spelled out, the City Manager has the final ‘say-so,’ so Council cannot override that…”

“We fired a city manager for the selling of a water tower,” Erhard said. “All the events that occur with a spill, Council has no say in? That affects the safety of the citizens. As public servants, we have a job to keep the public safe.”

Brayton stated, “My understanding is that any spill over 25 gallons is supposed to be reported immediately. It wasn’t done. I have not received any word from DEP about any adverse effects or situations that we need to take care of. My understanding is — that it was as (Booth) said — the way it was handled was proper. I think the whole thing comes back to why was it not properly notified to DEP.”

“What was done was done not with the approval, but the acceptance of DEP. Whether get fined for it or not, I don’t know,” the Mayor said.

“As far as what Mr. Snowberger does with those employees, this council has no say-so. We have a very strict charter that outlines what he can and cannot do, and this is one of the things that he can handle. Whether I like it or not.”

In the documents obtained were several memoranda regarding recent employee contacts with the Human Resources (HR) department. In documents dated June 2022, employees cited concerns about safety practices, use of PPE, and ineffective leadership.

One memorandum of June 28, 2022 states, “He (the employee) stated that he wanted to speak to HR because of safety concerns at the plant. He stated that since he obtained his (Water Class B) license, he understood the severity of operating a plant outside of compliance requirements and feels that the plant is currently out of compliance in several areas. He mentioned that (2) two pumps have been out of service for many months, which puts too much strain on the only working pump… stated he “lives in fear” that the current pump will fail causing severe Department of Environment Protection (DEP) fines and potential loss of his licensure…

In another document, an employee reported that another had “walked off the job,” because he felt his licensure could be jeopardized.

Erhard then referred to an invoice for $9,496.40 for the installation of equipment from RCM Utilities, which was brought to the site to prevent further spillage. Booth told the council that the lease amount for the two units is $3,947 per week. He added that he was confident that the issue would be resolved by August 12, 2022.

“That’s a fiscal impact that council should be aware of,” Erhard said.

According to Booth, the only error made by the City staff was to not notify DEP within 24 hours of the spill.

Snowberger said that he too became aware of the spill roughly 7 days after the incident. “The following morning, I met with that supervisory staff, I made some adjustments, I notified Council of those adjustments.” He later stated that there were still “pending disciplinary issues.”

Snowberger further explained, “Any time that the city experiences an emergency that does have to do with safety the department directors have the authority and autonomy to utilize budgeted reserves.” The Reserve fund is budgeted and approved by City Council prior to the beginning of the Fiscal Year (FY). Snowberger said that there is a $50,000 limit where the department would need to request a Declaration of Emergency.

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