Aug. 27 County Commission discussion scheduled on proposed state Consent Order regarding remedies for illegal wastewater spills

FDEP lays out measures in response to 83 ‘unauthorized discharges’ of more than 630 million gallons of treated and untreated wastewater

Mike Mylett is interim county Public Utilities Department director. File photo

On Aug. 27, the Sarasota County Commission is set to address a proposed Consent Order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) in response to spills of more than 630 million gallons of treated and untreated county wastewater for close to a year, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

Not only is the county being asked to upgrade its Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility — at a potential cost of up to $100 million — but it also would have to pay FDEP $624,800, the draft Consent Order says. However, FDEP offers the county options of “implementing an in-kind penalty project,” which FDEP would have to approve, or donating environmentally sensitive land to the state.

The in-kind penalty project would have to cost at least $937,200, the Consent Order points out.

An early June version of the Consent Order called for a $611,000 payment or an in-kind penalty project with a value of $915,000.

“The draft Consent Order addresses the 83 unauthorized discharges of treated and untreated wastewater associated with the County’s facilities since May 2018, failure to provide timely construction of wastewater facilities necessary to provide proper disposal, and Municipal Separate Storm Systems permit violations,” Alexandra Kuchta, an operations analyst with FDEP, told the News Leader in an Aug. 14 email. “Corrective actions include both short- and long-term remedies to cease all unauthorized discharges of treated effluent.”

“The draft Consent Order, which was sent to Sarasota County on August 8th, must be executed and returned to DEP by September 9th,” Kuchta continued. “For the Consent Order to be finalized and executed, it must be approved by the County Commission … and once it is executed, it will be a legally enforceable agreement.”

The Consent Order requires the county to “cease all unauthorized discharges of treated effluent” by Sept. 30.

Additionally, on Aug. 21, county Interim Public Utilities Director Mike Mylett will discuss with the County Commission potential funding options for the transformation of the county’s Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility to an Advanced Wastewater Treatment Facility, county Media Relations Officer Drew Winchester told the News Leaderon Aug. 13. The Bee Ridge plant is the primary focus of the Consent Order.

An aerial map shows the location of the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility. Image from Google Maps

Among other findings, the Consent Order says FDEP had documented that more than 420 million gallons of treated effluent was discharged from a pond on the Bee Ridge facility property. Water designed for reuse was stored in that pond.

A federal lawsuit filed in April over the county’s illegal discharges points out that “treated wastewater effluent that meets public access quality standards is stored on-site at the Bee Ridge [Water Reclamation Facility] in a 2.0 million gallon [aboveground] storage tank,” and in what the complaint references as a “’non-discharging’ storage pond” designed to hold 145.2 million gallons. The reclaimed water is used primarily for a golf course and residential irrigation involving about 5,500 acres, the complaint adds.

Interim Public Utilities Director Mylett last discussed water quality upgrades for the Bee Ridge facility when the commission conducted its June 19 budget workshop.

“In the short-term, the Bee Ridge Facility will construct the necessary infrastructure to dispose of their reclaimed water in an existing Deep Injection Well at Central County [Water Reclamation Facility] WRF,” Kuchta wrote in the Aug. 14 email. “In the long-term, modifications will be made to Bee Ridge WRF, effluent disposal system, and collection systems, including the construction of new Aquifer Recharge Wells.

“Additionally,” she pointed out, “the draft Consent Order requires the County to complete operational enhancements that target the failed components at each location where a Sanitary Sewage Overflow occurred, institute a Capacity, Management, Operation, and Maintenance program for all its wastewater systems, and implement advanced wastewater treatment at the Bee Ridge WRF. These actions will significantly improve the quality of reclaimed water being utilized for irrigation in the watershed and reduce the amount of nutrients potentially running off into Sarasota Bay.”

This May 8 graphic provided to the County Commission shows details about the nitrogen loads from wastewater treatment plants in the county. Nitrogen is the primary source of food for the red tide algae, researchers say. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The Consent Order calls for permanent implementation of advanced waste treatment measures at the Bee Ridge facility by the end of 2023.

An earlier version of the Consent Order said that implementation had to be completed by Dec. 31, 2024.

Further, the draft Consent Order calls for the county to submit to FDEP by June 30, 2020 “a report signed and sealed by a Florida licensed engineer … which confirms that [the county] has completed operational enhancements that improve and increase the reliability of the failed components at each location where a raw or partially treated wastewater [discharge] occurred …” By Dec. 31, 2015, the county also will have to have fully implemented a documented Capacity, Management, Operation and Maintenance (CMOM) program for all its wastewater systems, in accord with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines dated January 2005.

The draft Consent Order includes this section about penalties for unauthorized discharges. Image courtesy FDEP

A months-long process

On Jan. 28, FDEP sent the county an official warning letter, advising Public Utilities Department staff that the county possibly was in violation of the law as a result of multiple spills of untreated wastewater, “some of which may have entered [Philllippi] Creek,” and “[m]ultiple spills of treated wastewater totaling approximately 205,970,000+ gallons … reportedly discharged in August, September, October and December of 2018, some of which may have entered surface waters.”

“Based on this information,” the letter said, “there may be potential violations” of Chapter 403 of the Florida Statutes and Chapter 62-604 of the Florida Administrative Code.”

Since then county staff has been working with FDEP on the Consent Order.

This spring, FDEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller emphasized to the News Leader the seriousness of the discharges and FDEP’s determination that the issues producing those discharges be resolved.

The Aug. 8 letter from FDEP to Mylett was signed by Jon M. Iglehart, director of district management for the South District.

This graphic in the draft master plan for the Public Utilities Department, presented during a June County Commission budget workshop, includes details about the water and wastewater facilities. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

At the same time, the county has been working with FDEP, it also has been embroiled in a federal lawsuit filed this spring by three nonprofit organizations: the Suncoast WaterkeeperOur Children’s Earth Foundation and the Ecological Rights FoundationThe nonprofits have alleged county violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act, contending that the county 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.”

Asked for comments on the proposed Consent Order, Justin Bloom, founder and leader of the Suncoast Waterkeeper, told the News Leader via email on Aug. 13 that he believes the state proposal “is better than what I’ve seen from the DEP during the Scott administration,” referring to former Gov. Rick Scott.

However, Bloom continued, “I was disappointed to see that the Pilot Project to reduce Nitrogen at Bee Ridge that was in the earlier version [of the order] was taken out.”

Details of the facilities and discharges

Along with the 35 spills associated with the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility, FDEP notes in the Consent Order that the county reported 27 spills of both treated and untreated wastewater from its Central County Water Reclamation Facility, as well as 21 spills of untreated wastewater from the Venice Gardens Facility.

The Bee Ridge plant, which is permitted to handle 12 million gallons of wastewater per day, is operating under a permit FDEP issued on Dec. 19, 2017, the Consent Order says. That facility is located at 5550 Lorraine Road in Sarasota.

An aerial map shows the Central County Water Reclamation Facility, which is located near Palmer Ranch. Image from Google Maps

The Central County Water Reclamation Facility, which is permitted for maximum of 8 million gallons a day of average flow, operates under a permit issued on Feb. 25, 2015, the Consent Order says. That permit was revised on May 1, 2015 and again on May 26, 2017, the order adds. That facility is located at 7905 McIntosh Road in Sarasota.

The Venice Gardens Facility, located at 375 Venice East Blvd. in Venice, is operating under a state permit issued on May 6. It is able to handle 3 million gallons a day, as determined by a three-month average of daily flow, the order points out.

Three of the spills associated with the Bee Ridge Facility during the timeframe covered in the Consent Order “were multi-week discharges of treated effluent from the overflow weir in the reuse storage pond at the facility site,” the Consent Order explains. One of those discharges began on Aug. 16, 2018 and did not end until Oct. 30, 2018. The total discharge was reported as 205,197,000.

Another series of discharges began on Dec. 23, 2018 and did not end until March 12, the order says. The total amount of treated effluent in that case was put at 218,252,000 gallons, the order adds.

The last discharges of treated effluent covered by the Consent Order occurred from March 18 until March 26, totaling 9,034,000, the order points out. All of that treated effluent came from the storage pond, the order says.

The ‘Short-Term Fix’

Yet another facet of the Consent Order calls for the county to submit to FDEP by Sept. 30 a certification showing that the county has completed a “temporary short-term interim resolution” of the problems leading to the spills.

This chart provides details about the flow of wastewater into the Bee Ridge plant. ‘AADF’ stands for annual average daily flow. ‘MMADF’ stands for maximum monthly average daily flow. ‘MDF’ stands for maximum daily flow. Image courtesy FDEP

The Consent Order references a preliminary engineering report, completed in June by Stantec Consulting Services in Sarasota. That report explains that the short-term fix will be designed “to eliminate or greatly reduce overflows at the Bee Ridge [Facility] storage pond.”

The “Background” section of that report acknowledges that, beginning in 2013, “the County has periodically discharged reclaimed water” from the storage pond on the Bee Ridge Facility’s property. “These discharges or overflows typically occurred during wet weather events until the end of 2018, when the discharges continued during a period of above average rainfall and reduced customer use of reclaimed water,” the report says.

From 2014 through 2018, the report points out, the highest maximum daily flow occurred in August 2017, which was attributed to Hurricane Harvey. However, even with no large storm events in 2018, the report says, the average annual daily flow that year at the Bee Ridge Facility was higher than in 2017, “indicating overall more flow to the Bee Ridge [Facility].”

The highest maximum monthly average daily flow at the plant was recorded in 2017 and attributed to Hurricane Irma, the report adds.

This graph shows trends over the past years for wastewater going into the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility. Image courtesy FDEP

The highest maximum daily flow and maximum monthly average daily flow in 2018 occurred in December and September, respectively, the report continues. In December 2018, the report notes, 6.81 inches of rain fell over a three-day period “following the wet season when the groundwater levels are high, and the ground is saturated.”

On March 4, the report continues, representatives of the county, FDEP and Stantec met to discuss the January Warning Letter FDEP sent the county in late January.

The short-term fix, the letter explains, “is to evaluate and implement system improvements to transfer excess reclaimed water” from the Bee Ridge Facility to a deep injection well at the Central County Facility, “using the existing reclaimed water storage facilities and reclaimed water distribution system.”

After water is transferred to the Central County site, the report says, it will be discharged to an on-site storage pond and then pumped through filtration and chlorination systems before it flows into the well.