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Port Richey neighbors fed up with ongoing sewage spills

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Posted at 6:11 AM, Oct 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-18 18:25:10-04

A gem of Port Richey, the Cotee River, is being dirtied by what neighbors call a disgrace — human waste spilling into the street and reaching the river.

Captain Bob Hubbard, the owner of Island Paradise Charters, sent the I-Team a video where he describes raw sewage flowing out of manholes outside of his waterfront home and into the river, to show what happens when a hard rain hits.

“Talked to city officials, they don’t even want to listen to you,” Hubbard said in the video. “It needs to be fixed somehow because this is absolutely disgusting.”

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Captain Bob Hubbard explains the ongoing sewage issue in Port Richey to I-Team Investigative Reporter Kylie McGivern

Hubbard said he’s complained to the city for years about the problem plaguing paradise, the place he calls home.

“It’s something all of us here have to deal with, and the neighbors come down and they call the city all the time,” Hubbard said.

The owner of Sunset Landing Marina in Port Richey, Kristin Tonkin, shared an email with the I-Team dated October 2019, where she contacted the city saying she shared Hubbard's concerns about sewage flowing into the river and attached another video of the issue.

“Oh, it’s so bad at times that — you just barely hold your nose. It stinks. It smells like an outhouse,” one of the marina workers told the I-Team. “Whatever the problem is, we need to try to get a handle on it or do something about it because it’s just hurting everybody.”

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Bob Hubbard describes raw sewage flowing out of manholes outside of his waterfront home and into the river. He shows what happens when there's a lot of rain.

“I’ve called several times, I don’t get a response," said John Hainlin, who lives across the street from Hubbard on Grand Boulevard.

He’s lived there for the past 20 years.

“I can say in the last few years, every time it rains hard or if it’s been a couple of days of rain, the manhole cover just flows up six inches, sometimes I’ve seen it pumping out 10 inches, it goes right here into the storm drain, right out to the river,” Hainlin said. “Yeah, it’s a real *expletive* storm here in Port Richey. Literally.”

“My concern is, environmental. People getting sick. And when I go out there on a kayak and go up and down the river, is the water contaminated? So that’s my big issue," said Mike Sheetz, another neighbor.

The sewage, Hubbard said, doesn’t stop at his doorstep.

“I have a sunken bathtub. If I don’t plug it, it gets raw sewage in my house,” Hubbard said, providing a picture of the mess. “I didn’t move here to live next to a cesspool. It’s a beautiful community, it’s a beautiful river, but it’s getting contaminated and to be honest with you, there’s absolutely no reason for it. There’s no excuse for this.”

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Port Richey resident Bob Hubbard says raw sewage will come inside his bathtub in his home when there is lots of rain

The I-Team brought the community’s concerns to Port Richey City Manager John Dudte, and showed him Hubbard’s video.

When asked what he thought, Dudte said he shared Hubbard’s concern.

“That’s a challenge that we need to address," he said.

Dudte took over as city manager in January, bringing fresh eyes to the Florida community and Cotee River.

“That really is the gem of this area,” Dudte said of the river. “That’s kind of the calling card for our small community.”

Dudte previously served as the city administrator of Chapman, Kansas. He told the I-Team the issue of sewage overflows, “was one of several priorities I was given when I got here.”

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Port Richey City Manager John Dudte

Dudte said it’s a challenge Port Richey shares with neighbors in New Port Richey and Pasco County.

“In the event you get six inches of rain in one hour, it’s all we can do to keep up,” he said. “Systems that we have, you know, it’s easy to say they’re antiquated, and that sounds like a cast-off. That is the reality in some places.”

The city manager said the city is in the process of developing a capital improvement plan.

“That’s going to have a significant amount of money to address old infrastructure. Infrastructure wears out, just like anything else does. And when a lift station gets to 30 or 40 years old, it’s time to repair and replace. So I’m happy to say the council has seen that as a priority, they’ve appropriated money, we’re working on a long-term plan to kind of prioritize what lift station needs to be fixed right now and Chapel is on that list,” Dudte said.

Chapel refers to the lift station impacting Hubbard and his neighbors. The station triggers a warning to the city when the sewage level starts to rise and, as Hubbard has seen at times, spill over.

“It is a very serious situation and the state views it as such,” Dudte said. “If there is a spill, that gets documented, it gets treated and it gets reported to the state.”

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The I-Team reviewed state data and found, since 2017, Port Richey has reported 14 spills to the Department of Environmental Protection.

Throughout 2020, Florida PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) monitored those emergency alerts of sewage overflows across the state.

The reports are supposed to include the number of gallons spilled and cleaned up and if it impacted any body of water, as PEER pointed out in its report, released in September. But that doesn’t always happen.

The nonprofit found, looking at just 12 counties, including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota, there were 856 notifications to the state last year. That accounted for more than 126 million gallons spilled. Most of it, nearly 110 million, according to state reports, made it into the water.

Port Richey’s city manager said it’s a problem shared by communities across Florida.

“To the extent in which we respond to and mitigate sewage problems, that’s on us and we work hard to minimize that,” Dudte said.

Port Richey recently bought a new half-million-dollar vacuum truck to help pump sewage from the city’s aging lift stations.

“That’s a big purchase for a small town like this, that’s a lot of money to deal with this issue specifically,” Dudte said. “Clean water and dirty water is a high priority for the City of Port Richey.”

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Port Richey recently bought a new half-million-dollar vacuum truck to help pump sewage from the city’s aging lift stations.

Hubbard said they can’t keep waiting.

“There’s a lot of dolphins in here, manatees swim up here by my dock all the time, birds, pelicans, they eat fish out of here, ospreys, so it affects everything. All the residents, wildlife, everybody gets affected by it,” he said. “It’s been neglected, and we’re frustrated and we’re tired of it.”

The city manager told the I-Team Port Richey will begin seeing changes in the next six months to a year, as they work to finalize the capital improvement plan and start upgrading lift stations.