Residents reporting ‘vast improvement’ in conditions around Siesta Key Wastewater Treatment Plant

County staff continuing to work on measures to mitigate odor problem that had plagued homeowners

A sign at one gate on the Siesta Key Wastewater Treatment Plant identifies the site as county property. Rachel Hackney photo
A sign at one gate on the Siesta Key Wastewater Treatment Plant property identifies the site as county facility. Rachel Hackney photo

Almost exactly four weeks after numerous Siesta Key residents aired their anger about noxious odors at the Siesta Key Wastewater Treatment Plant, a Siesta Isles spokeswoman has told The Sarasota News Leader that she is happy to report the situation is much improved.

“Everybody’s overwhelmed,” Lorie Tiernay said during a May 4 telephone interview. “I don’t think we even realized how bad it was [beforehand].”

During the April 7 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, Tiernay was among those who peppered David Cash, manager of the county’s Water/Wastewater Division, not only about the persistent odor that was driving residents inside and keeping them there, but also about the fact that county staff had worked with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to delay the decommissioning of the wastewater plant at least another year. Although a revised consent order FDEP and county staff signed late this winter calls for the closing of the plant in June 2018, Gregory S. Rouse, the county’s engineering design manager overseeing the transformation of the plant to a master pump station, told SKA members on April 7 that staff is working toward decommissioning the Siesta facility in December 2017.

Tiernay said this week she and her husband have not decided whether to pursue a formal petition through FDEP to seek the closing in December 2016, which was the schedule prior to the department’s approval of the revised consent order. FDEP sent the couple a copy of an order dismissing their request. However, the document gives them the ability to try again in a more formal manner. It was dated April 22.

The couple has 30 days within which to respond, Tiernay told the News Leader. “We haven’t really taken a final position on that,” she added, noting that they had spoken about it with an attorney.

“We do feel very passionate that the timeline can be tightened up,” she continued. The age of the Siesta facility is a concern, she pointed out, “and everybody will agree that it is not operating at maximum capacity.”

David A. Cash. File photo
David A. Cash. File photo

During the April 7 SKA meeting, Cash noted that the plant is more than 40 years old.

The FDEP order says the April letter Tiernay and Romano sent the department does not contain all of the information required by a rule in the state’s Administrative Code governing petitions in such matters. Furthermore, the order explains, they “have not demonstrated standing to challenge the Department’s decision” to issue the revised consent order. To prove such standing, the order says, a petition must allege that the “Petitioner’s substantial environmental interest are affected” by the revised consent order. Such allegations, it continues, must show that they are in immediate danger of suffering injury and that the injury “is of a type or nature which [an] administrative proceeding is designed to protect.”

In regard to their assertion that the situation at the plant has had “a substantial effect on property values,” the order says, “[I]t is not appropriate for the Department to consider non-environmental impacts to the property of others in this type of proceeding.”

Addressing equipment issues

In the meantime, county staff is continuing to work on equipment at the Siesta Wastewater Treatment Plant, including replacing parts on two “scrubber” units in an effort to mediate the odor problems, Cash told the News Leader in a May 3 telephone interview.

Additionally, he said, staff is awaiting a memo from an engineer who undertook a review of the operations. He hoped to have that in hand by the end of this week, he added. As soon as he receives it, Cash said, staff immediately will address whatever issues it raises.

That review primarily was to determine what the source of the odor problem is, Cash continued.

In response to a question SKA President Michael Shay raised informally with the News Leader this week, Cash said county trucks do haul all the solids away from the plant. Sludge is pumped into trucks and then removed on Tuesdays and Fridays, he explained. “We don’t believe that that’s causing significant odors,” he added. Still, that is a possibility that the engineer’s review is to have focused on as well, he said.

An engineering drawing shows how the facility will be transformed into a master pump station. Image courtesy Sarasota County
An engineering drawing shows how the facility will be transformed into a master pump station. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Asked if the county’s Contact Center has been registering a lot of calls about the plant, Cash told the News Leader the latest information he had indicated none had come in, and he personally had not received any communications from anyone other than Tiernay and one other resident, whose email she had forwarded to him.

Commonwealth Drive residents live close to the plant. Image from Google Maps
Commonwealth Drive residents are among those who live close to the plant. Image from Google Maps

During the April 7 SKA meeting, Second Vice President Catherine Luckner reported that County Commission Chair Al Maio had suggested that anyone with complaints call the Contact Center at 861-5000, because those calls are recorded and staff makes sure they reach the appropriate persons in county government.

“So far, I would say that the county has done what it said it would do,” Tiernay told the News Leader this week. “David Cash has been in contact with me and he has been diligent,” she added. Still, she pointed out, “We had to get a little more aggressive” to spur the action.

Before county staff began responding to the complaints, she continued, “we literally could not go outside.” For residents on Commonwealth Drive, especially, Tiernay said, the change is a “vast — I mean vast — improvement.”

She told the News Leader, “If this is any indication of how they are going to treat the decommissioning [of the plant], I have to say I’m pretty optimistic.”