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.
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