By Warren Richardson
SARASOTA — For the first time since knowledge of Sarasota County’s massive and unlawful discharges of untreated wastewater became public, Sarasota County Commissioners will discuss the problem in a pair of meetings.
During their final budget workshop next Wednesday, commissioners are likely to discuss the cost for both a short-term and a long-term fix on problems at the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility, an item glibly addressed during commissioners’ budget workshops in June.
A draft final consent order sent to the county earlier this month by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection which regulates these facilities, gives the county until the end of September to implement a short-term fix to solve the problem on a temporary basis.
Commissioners will then discuss the consent order at one of their meetings on Aug. 27 or 28.
FDEP requires that commissioners approve the final order and return the signed document by Sept. 9. That order requires the county to convert the Bee Ridge facility to an advanced wastewater treatment plant by Dec. 31, 2023.
County officials have estimated the cost of conversion in excess of $70 million. Interim county utilities director Mike Mylett is expected to give commissioners a more accurate estimate next Wednesday during the budget workshop.
Such a facility would dramatically decrease the amount of nutrients being discharged back into surface waters.
Specifically, nitrogen would be reduced to 3 milligrams per liter, well below the 19 milligrams per liter the county reports indicate was discharged as during the 2018 time period, when the county reported 53,670 gallons of untreated wastewater was discharged, along with multiple spills of treated wastewater totaling almost 206,000 gallons.
A total of 21 of those spills of untreated wastewater came from the Venice Gardens facility.
County officials, including County Administrator Jonathan Lewis, became aware of the problem earlier this year when Lewis and the county attorney’s office received a letter from Suncoast WaterKeepers threatening a lawsuit over the unlawful discharges. FDEP also served notice of the violations to the county Utilities Department with a warning letter also in February.
For months thereafter, even during a highly touted summit to discuss the county’s efforts to improve water quality, officials omitted mention of the pending issue.
The seriousness of the problem is underscored in the findings of fact in the draft final consent order where FDEP notes that the county “failed to provide timely construction of wastewater facilities necessary to provide proper disposal,” in violation of several department rules and a state statute.
The draft final consent decree from FDEP also imposes a civil penalty in the amount of $624,800.
County officials declined to comment for this story saying through an email that it was “premature to comment prior to the consent order going before the board, since it’s not finalized until they accept/approve the order.”