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 to the closure one of St. Pete's four sewage treatment plants in 2015, the city experienced massive and repeated sewage dumps. Throughout 2015 and 2016, local officials minimized the sewage pollution problem and failed to provide adequate public disclosures about the scope, impacts, and risks associated with sewage pollution. This instinct to downplay the significance of the sewage problem undermined public trust and confidence that city officials would address the underlying causes.
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. Soon thereafter, 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 included mostly voluntary measures. The environmental groups were excluded from DEP’s process.
After one and a half years of litigation, during the summer of 2018, city officials developed an agreement with OCE and our co-plaintiffs regarding the work needed to address the problems with St. Pete’s wastewater collection and transmission system (i.e. the pipes and pump stations that move wastewater to the treatment plants). That agreement is reflected in an amendment to the city’s “consent order” with DEP, which was filed in federal court allowing for long-term court oversight of the city’s progress. The settlement provides certainty and transparency, while also allowing for court enforcement of the amended consent order to ensure that St. Pete stays on track with sewage system maintenance and improvements. The amended consent order includes firm deadlines and specific work requirements for fixing the leaky, antiquated pipes. The settlement also calls for an additional lift station, increased water testing, and prompt public disclosures. The city will also provide funding to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.
The proposed settlement, which was unanimously approved by the St. Petersburg City Council on August 9, closes this chapter of the city’s sewage spill history and supports the city’s ongoing efforts to fix all of its sewage infrastructure over the long-term.
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.