Local environmental groups’ ‘Sick of Sewage’ campaign resolves lawsuit against Sarasota County

Groups settle third lawsuit in three years, exposing and addressing massive amounts of pollution from Gulf Coast municipalities

By Justin Bloom
Guest Columnist

Suncoast Waterkeeper, Our Children’s Earth Foundation and Ecological Rights Foundation are celebrating the third legal victory in the ongoing “Sick of Sewage” campaign focused on cleaning up Gulf Coast waters.

After a series of horrific sewage spills in 2016 despoiled Tampa Bay and other local waters, the environmental groups brought suit against the Cities of St. Petersburg and Gulfport to stop serious and ongoing violations of the federal Clean Water Act. We focused our effort on achieving four key goals for municipal sewage systems: (1) to de-politicize the issues by seeking court oversight of overdue infrastructure maintenance and improvements, (2) to provide certainty via mandatory long-term commitments and deadlines, (3) to protect local waterways, and (4) to ensure public transparency along the way.

During the course of the hard-fought, two-year litigation against St. Pete and Gulfport, Suncoast Waterkeeper began investigating sewage spills in Sarasota County. That effort revealed a shocking pattern of longstanding, systematic infrastructure failures and disregard for public health and water quality in the coastal waterways that we are committed to protect.

In a race to consolidate the far-flung facets of its sewage system, the County decommissioned two tertiary Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) plants to better centralize operations. However, the remaining plants that the County increasingly relied upon employ only secondary treatment, leaving billions of gallons of highly nitrogenated wastewater as a byproduct.

At the same time, demand for the reclaimed irrigation water from the County was disappearing, as developers, in managing nitrogen in their stormwater runoff, turned to less polluted options, such as well water or highly treated reclaimed water from the City of Sarasota.

With nowhere else for the nitrogenated wastewater to go, in 2013, the storage pond at the County’s largest treatment facility (Bee Ridge) began periodically overflowing into Phillippi Creek, which flows into Sarasota Bay. To date, spills from the Bee Ridge pond have totaled more than a billion gallons, adding more than 65 tons of nitrogen to our waterways. Meanwhile, the extensive sewage collection system was deteriorating. It was poorly maintained in a piecemeal fashion, resulting in periodic spills of dangerous raw sewage throughout Sarasota County.

Though a member of the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and Tampa Bay Nitrogen Management Consortium, the County failed to make the connection between increasing levels of nitrogen in Sarasota Bay, declines in seagrass coverage and the County’s own sewage spills. Our investigation revealed a breakdown of communications among County staff and decision-makers, resulting in planning failures, operational failures, communication failures and inexcusable failure by consecutive administrations and commissions to provide adequate oversight. The huge amount of pollution entering our local waterways from the County’s sewage and wastewater systems became Sarasota County’s dirty secret. The Florida

Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was aware of the problems for years, but it did next to nothing in the face of increasing legal violations and environmental harm.

As a Red Tide of historic proportions wreaked havoc in the region’s coastal waterways for 16 months, the public increasingly connected the dots between devastating algae blooms, including Red Tide, and the man-made pollutants that fuel the algae blooms, including fertilizers, septic systems, failing municipal sewage systems and urban runoff. No longer placated by the mantra of “naturally occurring” offered reflexively by Gov. Rick Scott’s administration and supported by beholden science leaders such as Mote Marine, the public called for action. Suncoast Waterkeeper and our co-plaintiffs demanded it and had the strength of the Clean Water Act, decades of federal law and our recent victories in Pinellas County behind us.

In early 2019, the environmental groups initiated a federal lawsuit. Apparently, the county commissioners were not aware of the crisis until we took action. To its credit, the County immediately began to work toward solutions and to avoid protracted litigation, resulting in a settlement crafted to bring the County back into compliance with the Clean Water Act. The settlement also secured federal Court enforceable commitments to end the spills from the Bee Ridge storage pond; rehabilitate the County’s aging sewage collection system; upgrade the County’s largest sewage facility to Advanced Wastewater Treatment status; and adopt plans and processes to ensure adequate capacity, management, operations and maintenance of sewage infrastructure moving forward.

The County rapidly commenced building additional infrastructure necessary to move water out of the

Bee Ridge pond so as to avoid further illegal discharges of nutrient-rich reclaimed water into the environment. As a result, when the Bee Ridge pond began overflowing this rainy season, the County’s work to start moving water before rainy season arrived helped reduce the volume of water discharged into the environment. While the County has more work ahead of it to solve its problems at Bee Ridge, it is moving fast to take steps in the right direction.

After years of inaction under Gov. Scott’s administration, the DEP initiated an administrative enforcement action, which was an improvement, but ultimately resulted in a “Consent Order” far less comprehensive than our settlement. For examples:

  • The settlement goes back five years, whereas the DEP Consent Order goes back only to 2018.
  • The settlement includes detailed, thorough corrective action and prospective requirements for the collection system, incorporating best engineering practices and industry standards.
  • The settlement includes greater/higher stipulated penalties for future spills and missed deadlines, and penalties go to the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program rather than DEP.
  • The settlement retains federal court oversight and enforcement for six years.
  • The settlement includes requirements for increased public notification of future spills.

The provisions for continuing jurisdiction and oversight by the federal court are particularly important to the environmental groups and their citizen members. While the County under its current leadership was responsive and thorough, embracing a renewed commitment to improving the health of our waterways and our community’s environmental infrastructure, future County commissioners and administrations might not be. With the settlement having been memorialized in a federal court order, the agreement preserves citizens’ rights to hold Sarasota County accountable to its commitments to protect our waterways from sewage pollution. While it will take decades to bring the system up to industry standards, and spills will continue in the meantime, the County is on the right track, under federal court order, to do what is necessary.

(Justin Bloom, an attorney, is executive director of Suncoast Waterkeeper, a member nonprofit of the Waterkeeper Alliance.)