FDEP Consent Order over illegal discharges since May 2018 wins full County Commission support

Staff already has completed one step in four-pronged process to comply with stipulations

A graphic shows county staffs timeline for complying with the FDEP Consent Order. Image courtesy Sarasota County

It took less than 20 minutes on Aug. 27 for the Sarasota County Commission to approve a Consent Order with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) regarding unauthorized discharges from the county’s wastewater plants.

Commissioner Alan Maio made the motion; Commissioner Christian Ziegler seconded it.

The primary focus of the agreement was the discharges of treated effluent from a storage pond for reclaimed water at the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility, which is located at 5550 Lorraine Road in Sarasota. However, spills that occurred at other county complexes — including the Siesta Key Master Pump Station — are documented in an exhibit accompanying the Consent Order.

The discharges began on May 19, 2018 and continued through July 24. The final one on the list involved 448,000 gallons of raw wastewater from the Venice Gardens Water Reclamation Facility, which was discharged at the intersection of Border Road and Jacaranda Boulevard in Venice, the exhibit shows.

The Consent Order calls for four responses from the county:

  • A short-term fix, which entails the improvement of transmission capabilities between the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility (WRF) and the Central County WRF, which is located on McIntosh Road adjacent to Palmer Ranch neighborhoods.
A graphic provides an overview of the county’s reclaimed water system. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“We have actually completed this short-term fix,” Public Utilities Director Mike Mylett pointed out to the commission on Aug. 28. “We’ve also modified our existing deep-water injection well permit [at the Central County WRF],” he continued, so reclaimed water from the Bee Ridge facility can be diverted into that well.

A related step, he said, will be the installation of booster pumps to enhance the pressure and flow of water between the complexes. The county will need to purchase land to undertake that initiative, he added. A slide Mylett showed the board pointed out that that facet of the short-term fix should be finished a year after the property has been acquired.

  • The long-term fix: Construction of aquifer recharge wells on the grounds of the Bee Ridge WRF, which is to be completed by June 2023.

The county has obtained the necessary permits for that initiative, Mylett said. The solicitation package for a company to handle the project “should be on the street very shortly,” he added.

  • Mitigation: That will involve the conversion of the Bee Ridge WRF from a conventional system to an advanced wastewater treatment method (AWT). Mylett reminded the commissioners that he discussed that proposal with them on Aug. 21, during their final workshop in preparation of the county’s 2020 fiscal year budget.

The new process will dramatically reduce the amount of nitrogen in the reclaimed water, he said — from the range of 10 to 14 milligrams per liter to 3 milligrams per liter, based on information staff provided the board in early May and comments County Administrator Jonathan Lewis has made.

This May 8 graphic provided to the County Commission shows details about the nitrogen loads from wastewater treatment plants in the county. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Nitrogen has been identified by red tide researchers as the primary source of food for the algae that produces the blooms.

This page of an exhibit with the FDEP Consent Order lists part of the discharges associated with the agreement. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Although the latest estimate for the AWT expense is approximately $158 million, Mylett noted on Aug. 28, staff hopes to have a solicitation package published by the end of this month to enable it to hire a design firm for the project. After the design has been completed, Mylett said, a refined estimate will be available.

The AWT upgrade must be completed by Dec. 31, 2025, under terms of the Consent Order, Mylett pointed out.

  • The final step will be the implementation of a Capacity, Management, Operation and Maintenance Program (CMOM).

Greg Rouse, manager of the Utility Engineering Division, said such programs are conducted under the guidelines of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A slide noted that the “EPA’s Guide for Evaluating [CMOM] Programs at Sanitary Sewer Collection Systems “provides a best practice approach for wastewater utilities to operate and manage sanitary sewer collection systems.”

This graphic provides details about the CMOM program. Image courtesy Sarasota County

That guide also calls for documenting performance metrics and comparing them to benchmarks for best practices, Rouse noted. CMOM programs are designed to make a department active instead of reactive, Rouse said — to identify issues that need to be addressed before problems occur.

The CMOM program will be fully implemented by 2025, he added. “This is a never-ending, continuous process” that will include annual audits, Rouse told the commissioners.

Penalties, a fine and in-kind work

This slide provides details about the penalties included in the FDEP Consent Order. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Yet another facet of the Consent Order lays out a list of penalties for future violations, Mylett said.

The minimum penalty would be $500 per day per discharge for up to 5,000 gallons, the Consent Order says. The maximum would be $10,000 per day per discharge to cover volumes in excess of 100,000 gallons.

“That’s where my concerns are,” Commissioner Ziegler pointed out. “I know there’s been a leadership change since [the Bee Ridge WRF problems became public knowledge],” he continued. Yet, “We’re going to have ongoing spills, ongoing issues. … Whatever we can do to prevent those and mitigate the fines … You can’t prevent every spill,” he acknowledged, “but we need to be really much more proactive. I’m not OK with what happened at Bee Ridge.”

In response to comments by Commissioner Maio, Mylett said that he and his staff are working with the county’s Risk Management Division to create a process that would allow the county to pass along FDEP fines to any company whose actions resulted in an illegal discharge from county facilities.

“That’s a great point,” Ziegler said. In such a situation, he added, the company should be required to reimburse the county.

Finally, Mylett explained that FDEP had proposed a total fine of $625,800 as part of the Consent Order. “Of that amount, we will pay DEP $1,000 in cash.”

This graphic provides more details about the planned improvements associated with the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The department will allow the county to undertake an “in-kind project,” he pointed out, in lieu of paying the remainder of that fine. The initiative must have a value equivalent to 1.5 times the $624,800 figure, he noted. Staff has proposed a project for the Bee Ridge collection system, Mylett said.

Commissioner Maio also asked Mylett to comment, for the official record, that none of the approximately $200 million in expenses outlined under terms of the Consent Order will come out of the county’s General Fund budget, which is made up largely by property tax revenue.

Increased wastewater user fees, which the commission approved last week, will cover the improvements, Mylett said.

During the Aug. 21 budget discussion, he explained that the anticipated additional revenue from imposition of the rate increases also would enable the county to issue bonds to help pay for the facility upgrades.

“This isn’t just writing a check to DEP,” Chair Charles Hines pointed out. “Ultimately, this is a benefit to county residents.”