Sick of Sewage in Tampa Bay
(1) de-politicize the issue by agreeing to oversight by the federal court,
(2) provide certainty that cities will fully address overdue system maintenance and upgrades via mandatory long-term commitments and deadlines, and
(3) ensure transparency and citizen oversight.
Florida is known for its beautiful beaches, bountiful wildlife, and beloved blue waters. Sadly, many cities in Florida suffer from antiquated infrastructure that leads to sewage overflowing into waterways during large storms, which are especially common during the annual hurricane season. Sewage pollution wreaks havoc on wildlife and ecosystems, and poses major health risks to humans that come into contact with polluted water. Bacteria and pathogens in sewage cause serious infections and even death for humans or animals unlucky enough to be exposed.
Florida's sewage pollution crisis is a blight and creates horrific conditions in one of America's most important areas for water-based tourism and recreation, fishing, and sensitive wildlife habitat. City and state officials have not been proactive in maintaining sewage systems. St. Pete became a national poster child for sewage pollution after the city myopically decided to close one of its four sewage treatment plants right before the rainy season of 2015. In the months that followed, St. Pete dumped hundreds of millions of gallons of raw and "partially-treated" sewage into neighborhoods, Tampa Bay, and adjacent waters. Making matters worse, local officials were not transparent or forthcoming about the scope and impact of the spills.
Our legal campaign to address sewage pollution is a team effort, and we have partnered with two other non-profit organizations: Suncoast Waterkeeper and Ecological Rights Foundation.
St. Pete is located on Tampa Bay, and has a reputation as Florida's "First Green City." After an extremely unfortunate series of events led the city government to close one of its four sewage treatment plants in 2015, St. Pete experienced massive and repeated sewage dumps. Local officials have regularly minimized the sewage pollution problem, and failed to provide adequate public disclosures about the scope, impacts, and risks associated with sewage discharges on this level. This instinct to downplay the significance of sewage pollution undermines public trust and confidence that city officials will address the underlying causes of the problem.
In late 2016, a big storm led to enormous sewage dumps that fouled the water, caused dozens of threatened black skimmers to die of salmonella poisoning, and fueled a red tide event that led to an extremely large fish kill. We notified St. Pete of our intention to file a Clean Water Act citizen suit to address the problem, and offered a solution to avoid litigation in the form of a model "consent decree" that would provide court oversight of long-term sewage system improvements.
St. Pete instead focused on fighting the lawsuit while negotiating a "consent order" with the state environmental agency, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection ("DEP"), that includes mostly voluntary measures and remains in effect for only five years. DEP has a record of lax enforcement of these orders, and the process in St. Pete was tainted by yet another scandal, as the DEP official investigating the city's sewage problem was simultaneously being offered a job by St. Pete.
Gulfport is a small city with big sewage infrastructure problems. Although the volume of pollution originating from Gulfport's sewage treatment system is much less than St. Pete's pollution, Gulfport's dilapidated wastewater system has been neglected for decades, and now maintenance and upgrades are urgently overdue.
Our overall goal for sewage litigation is to ensure court oversight of the cities' plans to fix and improve public infrastructure. This strategy de-politicizes the issue and provides certainty for long-term progress to protect water quality, public health, and ecosystems.