County staff faces residents angry about year-long delay in closing the facility; one couple has appealed the state consent order granting the extension
The manager of Sarasota County’s Water/Wastewater Division has taken full responsibility for not making sure Siesta Key residents were aware that the closing of the island’s wastewater treatment plant had been postponed another year, and he has vowed that county staff will provide consistent communication going forward.
David A. Cash faced about 60 people during the April 7 meeting of the Siesta Key Association, many of them angry that they had learned only after the fact that the Sarasota County Commission and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) had signed a revised consent order that officially moves the shutdown of the facility to June 18, 2018. However, Gregory S. Rouse, the county’s engineering design manager overseeing the transformation of the plant to a master pump station, told SKA members gathered in the Parish Hall at St. Boniface Episcopal Church that the county plans to shut down the facility at the end of December 2017. That is a year later than the decommissioning previously had been scheduled.
The FDEP permit for the plant’s operation will not end until June 2018, Rouse explained, calling that situation “a six-month float,” just in case the decommissioning is not completed as planned. For example, Rouse noted, a hurricane strike could cause a delay.
In the meantime, Cash told The Sarasota News Leader in an April 11 telephone interview that representatives of a firm under contract with the county are going to make certain the Siesta plant’s odor controls are functioning correctly, and they are going to evaluate the possibility of using a neutralizing chemical at the “head works” — the area where raw sewage enters the facility — as a means of improving the conditions that drew numerous complaints during the SKA meeting.
“I do not have a timeline as of yet,” Cash said on April 11, though, “We’re going to make that a priority to get that timeline for the neighbors.”
Nonetheless, two Siesta Isles residents — Lorie Tiernay and Joe Romano — have filed an appeal of FDEP’s issuance of the revised consent order with the county, asking that the department reverse its decision and enforce the previous closing date of December 2016.
The couple’s letter says, “Our substantial interests will be affected by the smell and sounds that [have] existed and [continue] to exist daily. … We have to move inside on a daily basis as the smell actually makes us feel ill.”
The letter continues, “I feel that the community, particularly that which was directly affected by the decision regarding an extension was not informed of any plans for an amendment [to the consent order] or kept up to date on the progress of reaching the criteria of the [previous consent order] and that that lack of disclosure affected us materially by impeding us from making an informed decision when we purchased our home in October 2015.”
Jess Boyd, a spokeswoman with the FDEP, told the News Leader in an April 14 email that the department’s Office of General Counsel received the Tiernay-Romano petition on April 11 “and will review it for sufficiency.”
The couple’s letter was stamped as having been received by FDEP’s South District office on April 8.
Why the delay?
Amid the complaints aired on April 7 about the odor and noise, resident Betsy Moss’ question hit a key point: “What’s been the holdup?”
“If you’re an engineer working for a municipality, you have hundreds of stakeholders along the way,” Rouse replied.
A request by residents on Southwind Drive to change the path of the new sewer and water lines that will go under the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) necessitated a redesign of that part of the project, he explained.
Second, the design team won County Commission approval to put in the new water line at the same time as the wastewater line, he added. “Those delays probably added a year onto the project,” he said, “but [all the phases have] always been fully funded.”
As long as no unforeseen issues arise that result in extra expense, Rouse continued, everything should proceed as planned.
“So there’s no guarantee?” Moss asked him, drawing chuckles from audience members.
The first phase of the overall project, which is under construction, Rouse responded, is on schedule and under budget; the contract for the second phase will be awarded shortly, and it is under budget. Bids for the third phase will be advertised soon, he said. “I don’t see anything holding the project up.”
SKA President Michael Shay summed it up: “We lost a year somewhere along the line.” The start of the final phase, on Siesta Key, was dependent on projects scheduled for the mainland, Shay continued, “and those parts [of the plan] got delayed because of changes, and because they were delayed, our part got delayed.”
“That’s a very good point,” Rouse replied.
Yet another reason for the delay, Rouse continued, involved residents of the neighborhood in the vicinity of the intersection of Lockwood Ridge Road and Ashton Road, where the force main of the new sewer line will tie into another line in sections of the county’s Phillippi Creek septic system replacement project. Those residents “kind of did not want a sewer connect occurring in their neighborhood,” Rouse said, “and that necessitated a number of conversations with the community,” including discussions between members of the County Commission and residents. “Those discussions do take time, and those voices are heard,” Rouse pointed out.
The project and the timelines
In providing the background on the Siesta situation, Cash explained that the county bought the Siesta Key Utility Authority wastewater plant in July 2006. About four years later, he continued, the decision was made to decommission the facility and transfer the flow of effluent from the Key to the mainland. “From about 2011 until today,” Cash said, “we’ve been working on that goal.”
“I know it’s been there 40-plus years,” he added of the plant, “and people are getting a lot more anxious about it coming offline.”
Rouse then provided details on the three phases, which will entail turning the Siesta facility into a master pump station that will send effluent to the county’s wastewater plant on Bee Ridge Road and to the Central County Water Reclamation Facility on McIntosh Road, both on the Sarasota mainland. To remove the effluent from Siesta Key, Rouse continued, the county will construct a new 20-inch force main from U.S. 41, down the south side of Phillippi Estate Park and across the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), installing booster pumping stations along the way. Expansions of the Bee Ridge and Central County plants also have begun, he noted.
On April 26, Rouse said, the County Commission is expected to award a $4.3-million contract for the sewer force main and 5,000 feet of new water line. Most of the construction will take place from June to October of this year, Rouse added. New nonmetallic components will be used for the existing water line, he said, and they will be put in approximately 60 feet below the ICW.
The final phase will include the construction of the new master pump station on Siesta Key at the site of the wastewater treatment plant; that work, he said, is budgeted at $5 million. Staff is awaiting the last FDEP permit, which is anticipated to be in hand soon, Rouse told the audience. The master pump station work is expected to start in the fall, he pointed out. The pipeline will come up at a staging area in Siesta Cove, he said, and go across Midnight Pass Road, down Shadow Lawn Drive and into the treatment plant.
To decrease traffic problems on Midnight Pass Road, Rouse explained, staff designed that part of the project for summertime, after high season and the school year have ended. “Midnight Pass will remain open.”
The first part of Phase 3, he noted, will encompass the demolition of the bigger tanks that once stored water at the Siesta treatment plant. They no longer are in use, he said. After they have been removed, he noted, the contractor can use that area of the site for staging.
As for the design of the pump station: He pointed out that it will have “quadruple redundancy” to make certain it can remain functioning in an emergency.
He stressed that no delays are foreseen with any of the three phases.
SKA Second Vice President Catherine Luckner pointed out the primary concern of residents as the projects proceed: “the odor problem.”
“I don’t feel like our voices are being heard,” Lorie Tiernay said. “We’re told, ‘We’re going to work on it, but there’s going to be normal smell,’” she added of the Siesta wastewater treatment facility. Planning outside activities at her home with the certainty that odor from the plant will not be a problem is “a luxury we’re not afforded,” she pointed out. County staff has said that “we shouldn’t worry about living next door to this stink factory. I find that really hard to believe and very upsetting,” Tiernay told Rouse and Cash.
County staff has been making progress toward taking the Siesta plant offline, Rouse replied.
“Are you telling me that, from the date of the consent order until today, the county has done everything in its power, given this the full attention that it deserves?” Tiernay asked.
His department has, Rouse started to reply, prompting Tiernay to ask the same question of Cash.
“I believe we have done everything possible since 2011,” Cash began.
“That goes in direct conflict with what you told me,” Tiernay shot back.
“We have moved along the way with everything within our control,” Cash continued. “Now, could we have done more? Possibly. Could we have made it a higher priority over other projects? I think that’s what I meant when we talked at your residence last week,” he told Tiernay. “Sitting here today, we wish we would have [made the decommissioning of the plant a higher priority]. … We would have liked to have it offline many years ago.”
Cash added, “We’re doing everything we can at this point. … There’s a lot. … It’s a $55-milliion program [comprising numerous projects]. … And, yes, I’m disappointed that … it’s not further along than it is today. … [But] we’re on the right track to get it done by the end of 2017.”
Tiernay then reminded Cash that he had said he would do “everything in his power” to address the odor problem. “How are we to believe that anything is going to happen, that this isn’t lip service? This problem has been going on for so long.”
Cash acknowledged that Tiernay and her neighbors will “have to endure [the odor] longer than we told you you would have to endure it.” He added, “I’m committing to you that we’re going to see what opportunities exist to reduce the odors, and if it’s [a matter of] adjusting our activities or installing some temporary odor control [until the plant can be decommissioned], that’s what I’m committing to you and your neighbors that we will do.”
Tiernay noted that the consent order with FDEP calls for the county to reduce odors from the plant. Cash told her that is correct.
Later, Joe Romano told Cash, “It seems to me there’s a major lack of accountability.” He added of the odors, “They’re almost constant.
When he bought his Siesta Isles property at the end of 2015, Romano continued, he was told the plant would be shut down in 2016. The odor situation, he emphasized to Cash, “is absolutely terrible.” Romano added that Cash’s assertion earlier in the meeting that staff would address the problem “doesn’t reassure me about anything.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Cash told him: “I cannot guarantee you that the smells will go away on date certain.”
Another Siesta Isles resident, Stacey Roberts, said, “I think there’s something exceptional going on with the odor recently.”
Tiernay asked Cash whether she and her neighbors could call a specific phone number to let county staff know when they are experiencing problems with the plant.
Cash pointed out that he had given her the contact number for the local FDEP representative. If she did not find his response satisfactory, Cash continued, she could ask to speak to that man’s supervisor. Further, he said, “You can contact me directly,” adding that he also had given her the direct number for the wastewater treatment plant.
Then SKA Second Vice President Luckner noted that when she and her husband, Bob, had spoken earlier that day with County Commissioner Al Maio about the situation, Maio recommended residents call the County Contact Center at 861-5000. The staff members who answer calls can fill out incident reports and let the callers know the numbers to reference in the future, she added. Moreover, Luckner explained, the calls are recorded and logged. Staff makes sure complaints get to the appropriate county employees, she said.
“I think the biggest issue that I’ve seen in this is the lack of communication,” Shay pointed out. “We were under the impression this [project] was going to be done by the end of 2016.” In fact, he noted, the SKA had set up a committee to consider how the plant property might be used for the benefit of the community in the future, and no county employee had let him or any other SKA directors know about the delay until Maio mentioned it at the SKA’s Annual Breakfast Meeting on March 5. “What I’d like to see going forward … is an overabundance of communication coming from your office,” Shay told Cash.
It also would be helpful to have staff provide the SKA officers with updates that they could ensure would go up on the organization’s website, Shay added.
“I’m certainly willing … to keep … the communication lines open,” Cash replied.