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'Heads, you're probably OK. Tails, you get sick': University Area battles unsafe water from wells, septic tanks

Researchers cite "municipal underbounding," a process by which lower-income, minority neighborhoods are often excluded from city boundaries.

Emerald Morrow, Libby Hendren

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Published: 8:23 AM EDT July 25, 2023
Updated: 7:01 PM EDT July 25, 2023

Water that comes out brown, irritates the skin and has a chemical taste and smell — these are just a few of the water woes people in the University Area of Hillsborough County say they have lived with for years.

Researchers estimate as many as 1,300 homes are still connected to well water and septic systems. Over time, some of those systems have failed, leaving residents with water that is sometimes unsafe to use or drink.

"Drinking tap water in the University Area community is like tossing a coin. Heads, you're probably OK. Tails, you get sick,” said Dr. Christian Wells, a professor of anthropology and director of the Center for Brownfields Research and Development at the University of South Florida.

Wells began investigating water quality complaints in the University Area in 2017 after learning about complaints among neighbors living at Holly Court Apartments on N. 20th St. At the time, the complex was being serviced by well water.

A 2021 memo he sent to Mayor Jane Castor says water testing done by the Florida Department of Health "revealed elevated levels of iron that exceeded the maximum contaminant level (MCL) by as much as 7 times that established by the Safe Drinking Water Act."

Wells also said other forms of contamination could be present.

"There's everything from situations where a private drinking water well will be located within a drain field of a septic system and that the pipes from the drinking water well are old and deteriorating,” he said. “And so, you get fecal contamination into that. Coliform, E. coli and that sort of thing."

Wells said people in and around this area who are on city water and sewer service can also experience problems.

Credit: 10 Tampa Bay
Ernett Harris describes concerns with water at his apartment.

Ernett Harris says he can attest to that. Harris, who lives in an apartment close to the borders of the University Area, says he does not feel the water is safe to drink. He says there is often a smell of chlorine or sulfur when he turns on his faucet, and it can sometimes cause irritation.

"Sniffling real bad. Runny noses. My eyes won't clear up," he said.

Wells said that can be common.

"We've talked to people… on city water, but they have rashes, itching, skin problems, gastrointestinal problems, even though they're on city water,” he said. “And that's really due to the aging housing stock and problems with domestic plumbing."

This raises questions and concerns about how an area so close to the city boundaries of Tampa could have these problems.

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