SUNCOAST WATERKEEPER SETTLE THIRD LAWSUIT IN THREE YEARS, EXPOSING AND ADDRESSING MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF POLLUTION FROM GULF COAST MUNICIPALITIES
September 2019 | Sarasota Bay
LOCAL ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS’ “SICK OF SEWAGE” CAMPAIGN RESOLVES SEWAGE LAWSUIT AGAINST SARASOTA COUNTY
GROUPS SETTLE THIRD LAWSUIT IN THREE YEARS, EXPOSING AND ADDRESSING MASSIVE AMOUNTS OF POLLUTION FROM GULF COAST MUNICIPALITIES
Suncoast Waterkeeper, Our Children’s Earth Foundation, and Ecological Rights Foundation are celebrating the third legal victory in the ongoing “Sick of Sewage” campaign focused on cleaning up Gulf Coast waters. After a series of horrific sewage spills in 2016 despoiled Tampa Bay and other local waters, the environmental groups brought suit against the Cities of St. Petersburg and Gulfport to stop serious and ongoing violations of the federal Clean Water Act. As the groups have done for similar legal enforcement campaigns elsewhere, they focused their efforts on achieving four key goals for municipal wastewater systems: (1) to de-politicize the issues by agreeing to court oversight of overdue infrastructure maintenance and improvements, (2) to provide certainty via mandatory long-term commitments and deadlines, (3) protect local waterways and (4) to ensure public transparency along the way.
During the course of the hard-fought two-year litigation against St. Pete and Gulfport, Suncoast Waterkeeper began investigating sewage spills in Sarasota County. The investigation of Sarasota County’s sewage system revealed a shocking pattern of longstanding, systematic infrastructure failures and disregard for public health and water quality in area waters. In a race to consolidate their far-flung sewage system, the County decommissioned two tertiary, or Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT), plants to better centralize their operations. However, the remaining plants that they increasingly relied upon employ only secondary treatment, leaving billions of gallons of highly nitrogenated wastewater as a byproduct. At the same time, demand for the reclaimed irrigation water from the County was disappearing as developers, in managing nitrogen in their stormwater runoff, turned to less polluted options, such as well-water or highly treated reclaimed water from the City of Sarasota.
To date, spills from the Bee Ridge pond have totaled over a billion gallons since 2013 on at least 394 separate days, adding over 65 tons of nitrogen into Meanwhile, the extensive sewage collection system was deteriorating and poorly maintained in a peace-meal fashion, resulting in periodic spills of dangerous raw sewage throughout Sarasota County.
Though a member of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and Tampa Bay Nitrogen Management Consortium, the County failed to embrace data suggesting that their own sewage utility was a major contributor to increasing levels of nitrogen in Sarasota Bay and a related decline in seagrasses, important indicators of the overall health of the estuary. The environmental groups’ investigation revealed a total breakdown of communications among county staff and decisionmakers, despite county staff in the Stormwater Utility department expressing some early concerns. There were planning failures, operational failures, communication failures, and inexcusable failure by consecutive administrations and commissions to provide adequate oversight. The huge amount of nitrogen pollution entering Sarasota Bay Area waters from the County’s sewage and wastewater systems became Sarasota County’s dirty secret. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was aware of the problems for years, but did next to nothing in the face of increasing legal violations and environmental harm.
As a Red Tide of historic proportions wreaked havoc in the region’s coastal waterways for 16 months, the public increasingly connected the dots between devastating algae blooms including Red Tide and the man-made pollutants that fuel the algae blooms, including fertilizers, septic systems and failing municipal sewage systems. No longer placated by the mantra of “naturally occurring” offered reflexively by Governor Scott’s administration and supported by beholden science leaders like Mote Marine, the public called for action. Suncoast Waterkeeper and our co-plaintiffs demanded it and had the strength of the Clean Water Act, decades of federal law and our recent victories in Pinellas County behind us.
In early 2019, the environmental groups initiated a federal lawsuit under the Clean Water Act with an initial Notice including a summary of the critical problems their investigation exposed. Apparently, the County Commissioners were not aware of the crisis until receiving our initial notice letter. To their credit, the Sarasota County Commission showed a willingness to immediately work towards a solution and to avoid protracted litigation. They have been responsive to public’s calls for environmental protection and demonstrated a commitment to fixing their broken sewage system and making big investments in environmental infrastructure moving forward.
Reflecting the Commission’s commitment, County Staff, Administration, and the County Attorney’s Office worked collaboratively with the environmental groups towards solutions in a legal settlement crafted to bring the County back into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. The settlement secures federal Court enforceable commitments for the County to implement immediate and long-term commitments to:
- end the spills to Phillippi Creek from the Bee Ridge storage pond;
- rehabilitate the aging sewage collection system throughout the County;
- upgrade the Bee Ridge Plant to Advanced Wastewater Treatment; and
- adopt plans and processes to ensure adequate capacity, management, operations and maintenance of sewage infrastructure moving forward.
The DEP initiated their own administrative enforcement action, despite being inactive for 6 years while receiving evidence of the Bee Ridge Pond discharges, which ultimately resulted in a Consent Order that covered a portion of the violations alleged by the environmental groups. While much improved over Governor Scott’s DEP, which consistently failed to enforce environmental laws, the DEP’s Consent Order was far less comprehensive than the settlement between the environmental groups and the County in several ways, for example:
- Settlement goes back 5 years, whereas the DEP Consent Order only goes back to 2018
- Settlement includes detailed, thorough corrective action and prospective requirements for the collection system, incorporating best engineering practices and industry standards
- Settlement includes greater/higher stipulated penalties for future spills and missed deadlines, penalties go to the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program rather than DEP
- Settlement retains Federal Court oversight and enforcement for 6 years
- Settlement includes requirements for increased public notification for future spills
The provisions for continuing jurisdiction and oversight by the federal court are particularly important to the environmental groups and their citizen members. While the County under its current leadership was responsive and thorough, embracing a renewed commitment to improving the health of our waterways and our community's environmental infrastructure, future County Commissioners and administrations might not be. By memorializing the settlement agreement in a federal Court order, this settlement preserves citizens’ rights to hold Sarasota County accountable to their commitments to protect our waterways from sewage pollution. While it will take decades to bring the system up to industry standards and spills will continue in the meantime, the County is on the right track, under federal Court order, to do what is necessary.
For more information:
October 15,2018 Tampa Bay
ST. PETE SETTLES LAWSUIT REGARDING SEWAGE POLLUTION
Two years after the City of St. Petersburg sent hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage
into Tampa Bay, the city and three environmental groups that sued over the pollution have
reached a settlement. Suncoast Waterkeeper, Our Children’s Earth, and EcoRights filed the
Clean Water Act citizen suit in late 2016, insisting that St. Petersburg commit to more specific
and aggressive measures to fix its beleaguered sewage system in order to prevent recurring
sewage spills into neighborhoods and Tampa Bay Area waters. Sewage is extremely dangerous
to human health and causes a number of devastating impacts to ecosystems and wildlife.
To settle the lawsuit, the parties agreed that the city would request an amendment to its previous
“consent order” with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (“FDEP”), that the
amendment would contain additional work commitments, and that the original consent order and
its amendment will be enforceable by the federal court. In addition to the new work
commitments, the city also agreed to a $200,000 payment to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program to
be used for projects to benefit local ecosystems. This settlement package was approved by the St.
Petersburg City Council at its October 4 meeting after being discussed at length at the August 9
meeting. Mayor Kriseman signed off on the amendment shortly thereafter, and FDEP officials
added their signatures last Friday. Today, attorneys filed the settlement along with a joint
stipulation to preserve judicial oversight. The court still needs to approve the settlement package.
Long-term court oversight was a key demand of the environmental groups, which insisted that
St. Pete residents should have the ability to seek a court order if the city gets off-track with
planned sewage system work in the future. In addition to court enforceability, the settlement adds
several commitments and requirements that were not present in the city’s original consent order
with FDEP; for example:
• Details and mandatory measures regarding work and upgrades to the sewage collection
• New work commitments focusing on the pipes and pump stations that collect wastewater,
to prevent groundwater and rainwater entering the system (i.e. “infiltration and inflow”)
• Inspection of 100% of gravity sewer lines and force mains
• An expedited deadline for a private sewer lateral ordinance and a process for notification
and tracking of defective private laterals
• More water quality testing, especially at known problem areas (Salt Creek, Fossil Park
Lake, Clam Bayou, Lake Maggiore, Booker Creek, 54th St. Canal, 45th St. Canal, South
Side of 38th Ave)
• Prompt public disclosures of any water quality problems or sewage releases
Justin Bloom, Suncoast Waterkeeper: “Our citizen suit was essential to making sure that St. Pete
fixes its beleaguered sewer system and stays on track in the years ahead. Political winds may
shift and different individuals may be at the helm of the city government. But maintaining
functional sewage infrastructure is critical to the health of our ecosystems, our communities, and
so many businesses that rely on clean water and healthy estuaries in the Tampa Bay area. The
consent order amendment that resulted from this case includes language clarifying that St. Pete
won’t be excused from complying with all of the requirements and timelines for improving its
infrastructure if the city fails to budget or appropriate the needed funds. This is crucial to
ensuring continued work and progress over the long-term, even if changes in city staffing and
budget priorities occur. Sewage pollution contains numerous dangerous pathogens, bacteria, and
nutrients that fuel algal blooms. St. Pete has already taken important steps toward improving its
wastewater system to be better prepared for large storms, and with this settlement the city proves
its willingness to prioritize sewage system fixes for many years to come.”
Tiffany Schauer, Our Children’s Earth: “One of the most important factors which led to our
current infrastructure crisis is the fact that local municipal governments are in many ways illsuited
to manage issues like wastewater infrastructure. Sewage system failures are often decades
in the making, and most of the time the pipes under our streets are out of sight / out of mind. Due
to political term limits, electoral timelines, and limited financial resources at the city level, we‘ve
seen local governments throughout Florida and the United States falling far short of the task of
maintaining critical infrastructure. St. Petersburg became a poster child for this problem back in
2016, when the city sent massive amounts of raw sewage into Tampa Bay Area waters. Now, St.
Pete can be a national leader in showing what is possible when there is a genuine long-term
commitment to fixing antiquated sewer systems, with public transparency along the way and
court oversight to guarantee the job gets done. Our Children’s Earth has been engaged with the
issue of sewage pollution for more than a decade. Each city is unique, but there is never a quick
fix. This is why we insist on court oversight particularly in the worst cases, where the public
loses trust that its government will be transparent about infrastructure and pollution problems.”
Frederic Evenson, EcoRights: “This agreement is a win/win for St. Petersburg residents, Tampa
Bay ecosystems, local business owners, and even for members of the city government, who can
move forward with necessary system improvements without being concerned they will be
derailed by misallocated funding or political pressure in the future. We worked with the city to
keep everything as clear and simple as possible for city staff and residents. Because the city also
agreed to court oversight, the settlement is functionally the same as a ‘consent decree,’ which is
how federal Clean Water Act lawsuits are usually resolved. In this case there’s actually an added
layer of accountability as FDEP will maintain its authority to enforce all of the terms of the
consent order and the new amendment.”
For more information, please contact:
Justin Bloom, Suncoast Waterkeeper
(941) 275-2922, firstname.lastname@example.org
Annie Beaman, Our Children’s Earth
(510) 910-4535, email@example.com
A Sarasota environmental group is joining with other environmental activists nationally in suing two federal agencies as they seek to force greater scrutiny of power plant cooling systems known to kill aquatic species.
The lawsuit was filed early this month in federal court in San Francisco by Sarasota-based Suncoast Waterkeeper, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups.Read more
Suncoast Waterkeeper, Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance and others have filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act.
Driving this action is the “incidental taking” of thousands of sea turtles that get sucked into power plant cooling system intakes, pinned against the intake screens, and either crushed or suffocated to death. This “entrapment” occurs most frequently (85%) with females of breeding age, which not only results in the death of the individual, but eliminates the individual’s potential reproductive contribution to the species.Read more