Leader of Suncoast Waterkeeper points to ‘very high levels of Nitrogen’ going into Phillippi Creek and on to Sarasota Bay
As of 8:50 a.m. on Sept. 5, 75.757 million gallons of treated water had spilled from a storage pond at Sarasota County’s Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility into the neighboring watershed, county staff noted in a report filed with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).
The discharge began on Aug. 15 as a result of “continuous rains and flooding conditions,” county staff explained in the original report to FDEP. Staff has incorporated that language into each update since mid-August.
The reclaimed water has been flowing out of a 145.2-million-gallon storage pond and through an emergency spillway.
The Sept. 5 report also repeated the following information that has been included in each of the filings with FDEP, beginning on Aug. 15: “Reclaimed water in the pond is water that has been fully treated, meets all public access reuse standards and is typically used for irrigation purposes. Staff has begun sampling at the pond and downstream to monitor the effects of the emergency discharge. Staff will continue to monitor the situation and make every effort to minimize the volume and duration of the event. We will monitor the water flowing from our reuse holding pond to Philippi Creek, and take samples Monday, Wednesday, and Friday until such time that the demand for reuse increases, and the spill ceases.”
Concern also has been raised about the impact of the nitrogen load from the ongoing spills, as researchers have pointed to nitrogen as the primary feeder for the red tide algae.
In response to a Sarasota News Leader request for comment, Justin Bloom, an attorney specializing in environmental law and the founder of the nonprofit Suncoast Waterkeeper, wrote in a Sept. 5 email, “Monitoring reports show very high levels of Nitrogen in the effluent which makes its way via Phillippi Creek into Sarasota Bay, which has alarmingly high levels of Nitrogen which fuel Red Tide and other harmful algae blooms.”
Bloom continued, “Also, periodic sampling has revealed occasional high readings of Fecal coliform and E. coli in the effluent being spilled from the pond, which are dangerous to human health and the environment. This is not benign water, or stormwater as some have suggested. The spill is a major source of pollution.”
In its most recent red tide update, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) reported on Aug. 30 that the red tide algae, Karenia brevis, was observed at “background to low concentrations in and/or offshore of Sarasota County” over the previous week.
Background concentrations also were observed offshore of Manatee County, Hillsborough County, Lee County and Collier County, the report noted.
A week earlier, on Aug. 23, the FWC red tide report said “very low concentrations” of the algae were observed in Sarasota County.
A News Leader review of weekly FWC red tide reports over the past months determined that those Aug. 16 and Aug. 23 notations were the first at such a level for Sarasota County since May 24.
The red tide bloom that subsided early this year killed hundreds of tons of fish, as well as some mammals in the Gulf of Mexico. It also devastated businesses in the community that rely on tourism, as the county’s tourism agency, Visit Sarasota County, documented late last summer and fall.
Working to resolve the issues
On Aug. 27, the Sarasota County Commission unanimously approved a Consent Order with FDEP that calls for both short-term and long-term initiatives to eliminate the years-long problem with illegal spills from the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (WRF). Among the steps county staff is taking on the earlier timeline is the construction of two aquifer recharge wells on the Bee Ridge plant site, which is located at 5550 Lorraine Road. Those wells are scheduled to be completed in June 2023. Then, excess reclaimed water can be transferred into them, Mike Mylett, director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, has explained.
Staff also is working to improve the piping between the Bee Ridge WRF and the Central County WRF, which stands near Palmer Ranch neighborhoods. Completion of that project, Mylett has pointed out, will allow the county to transfer more effluent from the Bee Ridge facility to deep injection wells on the Central County WRF property.
The News Leader asked whether the Public Utilities staff wanted to offer any further comments this week about the Bee Ridge spills related to the recurring rainstorms. The publication did not receive any response by its deadline for this issue.
In his Sept. 5 email, Bloom of the Suncoast Waterkeeper wrote, “The continued spill at Bee Ridge is disturbing. This ongoing spill, which began on 8/15 approaches 80 million gallons, which, along with prior spills has well exceeded 1 billion gallons of partially treated sewage. This is evidence of a long history of neglect by the County that has now led to a DEP enforcement action and a federal Clean Water Act citizens suit. To their credit, the County is doing everything they can to stop the spill, but its going to take more time and a lot of money to fix their broken sewage system.”
The Suncoast Waterkeeper was one of three nonprofits that filed suit against the county earlier this year. They contend that the county has illegally discharged “raw sewage, partially treated sewage and/or treated reclaimed water into Phillippi Creek, Cowpen Slough, Whitaker Bayou, and streams and other waters that are tributaries to Sarasota Bay, Roberts Bay, Dona/Roberts Bay and the Gulf of Mexico in or adjoining Sarasota County.”
Their complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, in Tampa, offered exhibits documenting the spills, including those at the Bee Ridge WRF since September 2015.
The County Commission on Aug. 21 indicated unanimous support of the upgrade of the Bee Ridge WRF to an advanced wastewater treatment (AWT) process at a cost that could be close to $160 million. The board also has approved an increase in wastewater fees for county customers to help pay for the expense.
Bloom added in his Sept. 5 email to the News Leader, “After agreeing to the needed commitments in the [FDEP] Consent Order and citizens’ suit, I hope the County will take a hard look at ways to improve staff coordination and communication with both the public and commission so that the community can responsibly plan for growth balanced with adequate environmental infrastructure.”
The FDEP Consent Order covers the continuing discharges from the Bee Ridge site through the end of this year, Alexandra Kuchta, an FDEP operations analyst, pointed out in a Sept. 4 email to the News Leader.
As stated in the Consent Order, “Sarasota County Public Utilities is ordered to cease all unauthorized discharges of treated effluent by December 31, 2019,” she wrote. “This includes the ongoing release of reuse water at Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility. For any unauthorized discharge of treated effluent occurring after December 31, 2019, Sarasota County Public Utilities will be subject to the monetary penalties outlined [in the] Consent Order,” she added.
For example, Section 28 of that order says the county “agrees to pay the Department stipulated penalties in the amount of $2,000.00 per day for each and every day [the county] fails to timely comply with any of the requirements of this Consent Order, other than unauthorized discharges.”
The order adds, “For unauthorized discharges from any part of any of the [county’s] wastewater collection and transmission systems, wastewater treatment works, reuse or disposal systems, conveyance or storage systems, and residual management systems,” the county has agreed to pay specific penalties. Those would be assessed according to the volume of the discharge and the number of days the discharge continued, Kuchta noted.