County would have to convert Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility to advanced treatment complex and pay $610,000 fine in latest draft of state consent order involving millions of gallons of spills

County countered at one point with proposal to construct more sewer systems in Phillippi Creek Basin

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

The latest draft of a consent order between the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and Sarasota County regarding spills from the county’s Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility calls for the conversion of that operation to an Advanced Wastewater Treatment plant by Dec. 31, 2024, The Sarasota News Leader has learned.

The proposed order also would require the county to pay $610,000 in state penalties.

The negotiations between FDEP and county staff members follow 24 incidents associated with the Bee Ridge plant since the summer of 2018, the draft order points out:

  • From Aug. 16, 2018 through Oct. 30, 2018, the draft says, the county discharged 205,197,000 gallons of treated effluent from the reclaimed water storage pond at the Bee Ridge site.
  • From Dec. 23, 2018 through March 12 of this year, discharges of treated effluent from that pond “were reported to have totaled 218,252,000 gallons.”
  • From March 18 through March 26, another 9,034,000 gallons was discharged from the pond.

Additionally, the draft order says that “22 wastewater spills (treated and untreated)” were associated with the Central County Water Reclamation Facility. One of them, the draft notes, “was treated effluent.” That facility is located at 7905 McIntosh Road in Sarasota.

Another 18 spills of untreated wastewater have been associated with the Venice Gardens Water Reclamation Facility, the draft says. That facility stands at 375 Venice E. Blvd. in Venice.

The county “failed to provide timely construction of wastewater facilities necessary to provide proper disposal, resulting in the multi-week discharges of treated effluent from the overflow weir in the reuse storage pond at the Bee Ridge Facility,” in violation of state regulations, the draft adds. FDEP has found that more than 420,000,000 gallons of treated effluent was discharged from the pond on the Bee Ridge plant site, the draft says.

In responding to News Leader requests for copies of FDEP documents, department spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller wrote in a June 11 email, “Protecting Florida’s environment and public health and safety is DEP’s top priority and we take every unauthorized discharge seriously.”

She added, “The Draft Consent Order includes corrective actions for the reuse disposal capacity issue as well as for the raw spills in the collection systems of all the county’s facilities (Bee Ridge and Central County and Venice Gardens). These include both short-term and long-term remedies. In the short-term the Bee Ridge facility will construct the necessary infrastructure to dispose of [its] reuse water in an existing Underground Injection Control well at the Central County Facility. This will cease the discharge,” she pointed out while the county undertakes a long-term fix, “which includes new Aquifer Recharge Wells being constructed.”

The conversion of the Bee Ridge plant to an Advanced Wastewater Treatment facility, Miller continued, “will significantly improve the quality of reuse water being utilized for irrigation in the watershed and reduce the amount of nutrients potentially running off into Sarasota Bay.”

A graphic shown to participants at the June 5 Water Quality Summit explains advanced wastewater treatment. ‘F.S.’ refers to the Florida Statutes. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Miller also pointed out that for the draft order to be “finalized and executed it must be approved by the County Commission. Once it is executed, it will be a legally enforceable agreement.”

In early May, Mike Mylett, interim director of the county’s Public Utilities Department, told the commissioners that staff estimated the expense of converting all three county water reclamation facilities to advanced treatment centers would range between $70 million and $90 million.

Last week, during the county’s Water Quality Summit, Mylett told the approximately 650 people present that the expense for just the Bee Ridge facility would be between $50 million and $100 million. He also noted that of the three county water reclamation plants, only the Bee Ridge facility sits on a site large enough to make such a conversion possible.

Additionally, Chuck Walter, manager of the county’s Stormwater Division, told the Water Quality Summit attendees that staff would be back before the County Commission in September with refined estimates of expenses for measures — including upgrades of the water reclamation plants — that would improve the quality of water in Sarasota Bay and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.

On May 8, commissioners indicated a willingness to issue bonds to provide the necessary funding for major water quality projects, given the high bond ratings the county has received from the major rating agencies.

This graphic shows details about the nitrogen loads from water reclamation plants in the county. It was shown to the County Commission on May 8. Image courtesy Sarasota County

During that early May discussion, Walter also cautioned the commissioners that if they do not pursue measures to improve the quality of water in the bays — in the face of data showing demonstrated seagrass loss — then it is likely they will have to contend with state and federal regulatory action dictating such steps.

As negotiations proceed on the FDEP consent order, some discussion of potential expenses could arise as the County Commission conducts its annual, intensive workshops to finalize the county budget for the next fiscal year. Those sessions are scheduled for June 18 and 19, with a third set for June 21, in the event the board needs more time than the first two days will allow.

The commissioners this year have told staff that they do not want to raise the millage rate, though it will increase because of the voter-approved referendum allowing the county to issue $65 million in bonds to finance the North Extension and other improvements to The Legacy Trail.

Typically, during the June budget workshops, county administrative staff will bring to the board’s attention any new proposals for spending since the previous budget workshop. The last discussions the commission conducted about the fiscal year 2020 budget were on May 17.

Given the FDEP proposed fine of $610,000, staff next week may ask for direction — or offer suggestions — about how that could be covered.

A counterproposal

This November 2018 graphic shows the Phillippi Creek Septic Replacement System. Image courtesy Sarasota County

An earlier version of the draft order, which the Sierra Club provided to the News Leader, called for the county to eliminate septic tanks and connect homes to sewer systems in two more areas of the Phillippi Creek Basin — Areas M West and D4. That work would have been in lieu of converting the Bee Ridge plant to an Advanced Wastewater Treatment facility.

In a June 3 letter to FDEP, Cris Costello, organizing manager of the Sierra Club in Osprey, wrote that the county’s discharges between Aug. 16, 2018 and Oct. 22, 2018 “had an average nitrogen concentration of 19.3 mg/L [milligrams per liter], based upon County Discharge Monitoring Reports (DMRs) submitted to FDEP …” That equates, Costello continued, to 33,101 pounds of nitrogen discharged directly to Phillippi Creek. Based on scientific calculations Costello cited, that is more nitrogen than the load produced by all the septic systems the county was proposing to hook up to new sewer lines in the Phillippi Creek watershed, her letter pointed out.

Mylett, the county’s interim director of Public Utilities, told the County Commission in early May that an advanced wastewater treatment system would reduce the nitrogen load to 3 mg per liter.

“Ironically,” Costello pointed out in her letter, “the majority of this direct loading to Phillippi Creek also occurred during the County’s fertilizer ‘restricted period’ of June 1 through September 30, in conflict with the intent of the County’s own fertilizer ordinance to limit nitrogen loads.”

Scientists consistently point to nitrogen as the primary food for the red tide algae. (See the related stories in this issue.)

Costello then noted that the county’s discharge of reclaimed water between Dec. 23, 2018 and March 24 of this year had an average nitrogen concentration of 14.9 mg per liter, based upon the county DMRs submitted to FDEP. Those discharges, she wrote, equated to 28,235 pounds of nitrogen going into Phillippi Creek, which also was greater than the annual loading from all the septic systems the county was proposing to hook up to sewer lines in Areas M West and D4.

This is an exhibit filed with the federal lawsuit. Image courtesy U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida

As county staff negotiates with FDEP, county leaders also are in the midst of a federal lawsuit regarding the discharges from the water reclamation plants. That complaint was 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.”

Give-and-take of the negotiations

As negotiating has continued over both the short- and long-term solutions, the latest version of the FDEP consent order calls for the county “to cease all unauthorized discharges of treated wastewater from the Bee Ridge Facility” by Aug. 30.

An earlier version of the document cited July 19 as the date and did not specify the Bee Ridge plant.

Additionally, within five days of the effective date of the order, the county is to retain the services of a professional engineer registered in the State of Florida to design the proposed short-term modifications of its wastewater treatment facilities, “effluent disposal systems, and effluent conveyance systems.” The county also would have to complete an engineering report “demonstrating that, after implementation of the [short-term] modifications, the Facilities will not discharge air or water contaminants in sufficient quantity … so as to contribute significantly to the pollution problems within the State.”

Moreover, the latest draft says the county would agree to pay FDEP $2,000 per day in penalties “for each and every day [the county] fails to timely comply with any of the requirements of this Consent Order, other than unauthorized discharges.”

An earlier version put the penalties at $2,500 per day.

This graphic, presented to county Water Quality Summit attendees, shows how wastewater treatment functions. Image courtesy Sarasota County

A separate section of the latest draft also specifies penalties 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,” as follows:

  • $500 for up to 5,000 gallons.
  • $1,000 for 5,001 to 10,000 gallons.
  • $2,500 for 10,001 to 25,000 gallons.
  • $5,000 for 25,001 to 100,000 gallons.
  • $10,000 for any discharge in excess of 100,000 gallons.

Further, the draft calls for the county to submit to FDEP a written report every six months containing information about the status of the projects outlined in the order, as well as “any reasons for noncompliance.”

An earlier version required a report every calendar quarter.

A months-long process

In her June 11 email to the News Leader, Miller of FDEP wrote, “In the event of a discharge, our response is threefold: (1) work with the facility to identify any releases and ensure the release is stopped as quickly as possible; (2) gather and analyze information surrounding the circumstances of the reported incident to evaluate it from a regulatory perspective to determine if there were any violations; (3) identify any further corrective actions needed, including solutions to avoid future discharges and possible enforcement.”

Miller continued, “DEP has a number of enforcement tools we are able to use to address any identified violations. The nature of the violation and circumstances surrounding the event are used in the determination of which one is best suited. Along with the possibility of fines and penalties, which is one enforcement tool, enforcement can also be requiring necessary restoration and/or remediation actions through a Compliance Assistance Offer, Consent Order or other enforcement mechanism.”

On Jan. 28, Miller wrote, FDEP sent a warning letter to Sarasota County, notifying county leaders “of possible violations of law for which Sarasota County Utilities may be responsible at the county’s Bee Ridge and Central facilities.”

This is a portion of the warning letter FDEP sent the county in January. Image courtesy FDEP

She added that the warning letter required the county to set up a meeting to discuss the matter within 15 days.

“This meeting was held on March 4, 2019,” Miller continued. At that time, [FDDP] staff “made it clear that the county must immediately implement a daily notification protocol during discharge events and that they are to make it their top priority to explore every opportunity to temporarily divert water to reduce or eliminate the discharge and to consider upgrading their plant to advanced waste treatment (AWT) and constructing additional permittable treated wastewater disposal capacity on an accelerated schedule,” Miller explained.