Gulf Coast “SICK OF SEWAGE” campaign resolves third lawsuit in three years, exposing and addressing massive amounts of pollution from Sarasota County

Sarasota County wastewater overflowing into Cowpen Slough, February 2019

Sarasota County wastewater overflowing into Cowpen Slough, February 2019

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.  As the groups have done for similar legal enforcement campaigns elsewhere, they focused their efforts on achieving three key goals for municipal wastewater systems: (1) to de-politicize the issues by agreeing to court oversight of overdue infrastructure maintenance and improvements, (2) to provide certainty via mandatory long-term commitments and deadlines, and (3) 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.  The investigation of Sarasota County’s sewage system revealed a shocking pattern of longstanding, systematic infrastructure failures and disregard for public health and water quality in area waters.

The County knew about the Bee Ridge Pond overflows since at least 2013 and inexplicably did nothing to curtail its illegal practice of letting excess reclaimed water flow over the weir and into area waters, claiming it did not have enough re-use customers and therefore nowhere to send the nitrogen-laced water.  The real cause of those spills, however, was a total failure to properly manage the county’s sewage infrastructure in the face of insufficient demand for the re-use water produced at the Bee Ridge treatment plant.

To date, spills from the Bee Ridge pond have totaled over a billion gallons since 2013 on 394 separate days, adding over 65 tons of nitrogen into local waterways. 

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Meanwhile, the extensive sewage collection system was deteriorating and poorly maintained in a peace-meal 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, Sarasota County consistently failed to heed clear warnings and embrace data showing that their own pollution was a major contributor to increasing levels of nitrogen in Sarasota Bay and a related decline in seagrasses, which are important indicators of the overall health of the estuary.  The environmental groups’ investigation revealed a total breakdown of communications among county staff and decisionmakers, despite county staff in the Stormwater Utility department expressing some early concerns.  There were planning failures, operational failures, communication failures, and inexcusable failure by consecutive administrations and commissions to provide adequate oversight.  The huge amount of nitrogen pollution entering Sarasota Bay Area waters 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 did next to nothing in the face of increasing legal violations and environmental harm.

As the historic 2018 Red Tide wreaked havoc in the region’s coastal waterways, the public increasingly connected the dots between the increasingly devastating algae blooms including Red Tide and man-made pollutants that feed algae sources of nitrogen, including fertilizer, septic systems and failing municipal sewage systems.  No longer placated by the mantra of “naturally occurring” offered reflexively by Governor Scott’s administration and supported by beholden science leaders like 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 sent the County notice of intent to file a federal lawsuit under the Clean Water Act as well as a summary of the critical problems their investigation exposed.  Apparently, the County Commissioners were not aware of the crisis until receiving our notice letter.  To their credit, the Sarasota County Commission showed a willingness to immediately work towards a solution and to avoid litigation.  Throughout 2019, they have been responsive to public’s calls for environmental protection and have demonstrated a commitment to fixing the problems with Sarasota County’s utilities and making big investments in environmental infrastructure moving forward.

Reflecting the Commission’s commitment, County Staff, Administration, and the County Attorney’s Office worked collaboratively with the environmental groups towards solutions in a legal settlement crafted to bring the County back into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act.  The settlement secures federal Court enforceable commitments for the County to implement immediate and long-term commitments to

·      end the spills to Phillippi Creek from the Bee Ridge storage pond;

·      rehabilitate the aging sewage collection system throughout the County;

·      upgrade the Bee Ridge Plant to Advanced Wastewater Treatment; and

·      adopt plans and processes to ensure adequate capacity, management, operations and maintenance of sewage infrastructure moving forward.

Under pressure from our lawsuit and DEP’s enforcement action, County staff immediately 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, as it reliably and predictably has for the last four rainy-seasons, 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 now moving fast to take steps in the right direction.

DEP initiated their own administrative enforcement action, despite being inactive for 6 years while receiving evidence of the Bee Ridge Pond discharges, which resulted in a Consent Order that covered a portion of the violations alleged by the environmental groups.  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.  By memorializing the settlement agreement in a federal Court order, this settlement preserves citizens’ rights to hold Sarasota County accountable to their commitments to protect our waterways from sewage pollution. 

While much improved over Governor Scott’s DEP, which consistently failed to enforce environmental laws, the DEP’s Consent Order was less encompassing than the settlement between the environmental groups and the County in several ways, for example:

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