Action, which was reported to FDEP as required, was necessary to prevent spillage of raw sewage, county and FDEP staff members say
On Sept. 1, on its Twitter account, Sarasota County issued the following notice: “Try conserving water and helping to reduce the volume entering our sewer system. The county has 680 lift stations throughout the county, plus four water reclamation/treatment facilities that combine to treat more than 17 MILLION gallons a day, and they are operating at full capacity.”
The notice added, “This is expected to continue to last for at least the next 24 hours as the severe weather sticks around. County crews are working around the clock monitoring and addressing issues.”
The alert went out as what was to become Hurricane Hermine made her way along the west coast of Florida, dropping heavy amounts of rain on parts of the county, leading to flooding.
Among the areas that saw the greatest impact, county staff reported later, was Siesta Key.
Because of concern that raw sewage would spill over the tanks in the Siesta Key Wastewater Treatment Plant, county staff made the decision to release 3.3 million gallons of partially treated wastewater into the Grand Canal immediately next to the facility, David A. Cash, the county’s water/wastewater division manager, told the News Leader during a Sept. 16 telephone interview.
That is what the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) considers a “reportable event,” Cash explained.
As required by FDEP, he added, staff posted “No Swimming” signs upstream and downstream of the discharge area.
However, he said, “we did not alert the neighbors immediately.”
Although the News Leader has learned of only two complaints to Sarasota County, a Siesta Key Association (SKA) vice president told the News Leader this week, “A few people have been upset” because they were not notified directly.
Therefore, Cash explained, he and other staff members “will look at doing that in the future.”
No such neighborhood notifications have been provided in similar situations in the past, he explained.
One Siesta couple sent an email to the County Commission on Sept. 18, writing, “We live on the Grand Canal, a couple hundred yards from the water treatment plant. We were amazed to hear there was a sewage spill into the canals following Hermine. How can it be that we were not notified? Even a letter sent by mail would have arrived the next day!”
“As Tropical Storm Hermine came through,” Cash explained to the News Leader, “we had excessive rainfall that was entering the gravity sewer system and increasing the normal flow.” He continued, “Our procedure, which many facilities have, is to bypass part of the treatment process … The full treatment is very difficult with heavy rain.”
As indicated by the county’s Twitter account, he added, “we were doing broad communications throughout the county … cautioning people that we may be having spills …”
“I hadn’t heard anything at the time but knew with the amount of rain and debris that has nowhere to go, they were cautioning people,” SKA Second Vice President Catherine Luckner told the News Leader, referring to county staff. “I think [the action at the plant] was to save the neighborhoods, not to contaminate the neighborhoods,” Luckner pointed out.
In response to a News Leader request for documentation of the county’s reports to FDEP, department spokeswoman Jess Boyd wrote in a Sept. 20 email, “A sanitary sewer overflow can spill domestic wastewater out of manholes and onto streets and into storm water systems, surface water bodies or into toilets, sinks and drains before it can reach a treatment facility. To avoid this threat to health and safety, bypass provisions are included in permits for times when there is no other feasible alternative. The utilities are required to notify DEP within 24 hours if they need to use those provisions.”
One of the Sarasota County reports Boyd sent the News Leader, notes that the discharge began about an hour after staff saw the impact the rainfall was having on the flow of wastewater in the plant on Aug. 31. The report adds, “Chief arrived at [9 p.m.] accessed the situation and opened the plant bypass to avoid spilling … raw wastewater.”
As Boyd put it in her email, “After receiving 7 inches of rain on August 31 due to Tropical Storm Hermine, the Siesta Key [Wastewater Treatment Plant] began bypass discharges of partially treated wastewater, which ceased on September 5.”
She added, “The utility conducted water quality sampling in [the] Grand Canal until it returned to conditions prior to the discharge,” which was on Sept. 7. “These sampling results are submitted to DEP as part of its review of the incident. The overall impact of wastewater discharges to surfaces waters is fortunately temporary. Our bays, rivers and gulf are constantly moving, which results in the dissipation and dilution of wastewater contaminants in a few days.”
Frustration over the Siesta plant
During its April 7 meeting, the SKA board hosted David Cash and other county representatives to discuss the projects underway that will lead to the decommissioning of the Siesta Wastewater Treatment Plant. In accord with an agreement between the county and FDEP, the plant must be decommissioned by June 18, 2018, they said. However, staff’s goal is to shut down the facility by the end of December 2017.
Still, residents who live near the plant reported their frustrations that the 2017 date was a year later than the county previously had planned to begin treating Siesta wastewater on the mainland.
Gregory S. Rouse, a county engineering design manager, explained that complaints from residents affected by facets of the project on the mainland led to redesign of parts of the undertaking, which had resulted in the new agreement with FDEP.
Residents voiced anger primarily about odors emanating from the Siesta facility, which is more than 40 years old. Since then, county staff has worked to mitigate those problems, with residents having reported to the News Leader that that situation has improved greatly.