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NEW PORT RICHEY – University of South Florida environmental engineer Audrey Levine taught chemistry Monday to more than 125 Aloha Utilities customers.

But the west Pasco County residents aren’t working toward a degree. They’re looking for answers on how to end the black water problems that have plagued the Seven Springs area for nearly a decade.

Levine spent most of last year testing Aloha’s system for a report, released two weeks ago, that outlined several water treatment options for the private utility.

“But there’s nothing I could test at that plant that I can tell you is going to eliminate black water,” she said.

The audience groaned when Levine said Aloha officials participated in the testing, and some suggested the professor and the company had entered into a conspiracy.

Wayne Forehand, chairman of the Aloha Utilities Citizens Advisory Committee, which hosted the meeting at Trinity College, quickly steered the question-and-answer period away from further controversy. Aloha has about 10,000 customers east of U.S. 19.

More than 1,500 customers in Seven Springs and Riverside Villas have signed petitions asking the Florida Public Service Commission to transfer their water service to Pasco County.

A commission hearing on the issue is set for April 8 at the West Pasco Government Center on Little Road. Before being asked to leave the meeting Monday, Aloha President Stephen Watford released a prepared statement saying the company was “generally in agreement” with Levine’s report. “As is the case with any utility, this is not to say that the quality of water received by our customers cannot be improved,” Watford said. Black water and a rotten-egg smell are caused by reactions between sulfur bacteria and other water compounds or metal pipes.

Levine and other experts have said Aloha’s water meets regulatory standards. Customer activist Abraham Kurien told residents that scientific, not legal, standards should determine water standards.

“People’s rights should not be trampled upon,” Kurien said. “We have a right to good water coming out of our faucets.”

He blamed Aloha’s “corporate culture” for refusing to fix the problem and called for a strong turnout at April’s commission hearing.

“We need to pack that hall,” Kurien said. “If there are only 100 people in a room that seats 400, then Aloha will win.” A group called the Committee for Better Water Now was formed Monday night to prepare for the hearing.

Before then, customers and Aloha officials will sit down with Levine to discuss treatment options. Aloha has eight groundwater wells in southwest Pasco. Levine said the water quality of each changes throughout the year, depending on rainfall. “It’s always water but it has different constituents, which makes treating it more of a challenge,” she said.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District has gone to court trying to stop Aloha from exceeding pumping limits.

Customers on Monday said they’re concerned water demand will outpace supply in rapidly developing Pasco.

They requested county officials, Aloha Utilities, other water providers and environmental regulators join a panel discussion on the issue March 22.

Copyright 2004 The Tribune Co.

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