SARASOTA – With no discussion, Sarasota County commissioners approved a proposed settlement that brings to an end a stain on the county’s claimed reputation as a water quality steward.
The agreement, brought to the commissioners Tuesday by County Attorney Rick Elbrecht, will end a lawsuit filed against the county in April after the disclosure of a massive number of spills at the county’s three water reclamation facilities.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Tampa by Suncoast Waterkeepers and other entities, alleged violations of the federal Clean Water Act by the county.
The settlement agreement came after commissioners approved a consent agreement with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection last month which mandates steps the county must take to rectify the problems at the facilities. Chief among those steps is the conversion of the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility to advanced wastewater treatment standards by December 2025.
The consent order noted that the county experienced 83 “unauthorized discharges” totaling 630 million gallons of treated and untreated wastewater since May 2018. A majority of those spills were from the Bee Ridge Water Reclamation Facility with the remainder coming from the Central County and Venice Gardens facilities.
In presenting the settlement agreement, Elbrecht explained to commissioners that it contained five main elements:
• A commitment to converting the Bee Ridge facility to advanced wastewater treatment;
• Reporting requirements to FDEP, the plaintiffs, and the public;
• Improving the wastewater collection system through monitoring and maintenance;
• Stipulated penalties to FDEP and the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program for future violations;
• And, payment of $265,000 in attorney fees, litigation costs, and compliance monitoring.
In a memo accompanying the agreement, Elbrecht noted that each violation of the federal law from Jan. 12, 2009 to Nov. 2, 2015 carried a fine of up to $37,500 per violation. For violations after Nov. 2, 2015, the penalties rose to $54,833 per day per violation.
County staff estimated the total potential penalties the county faced amounted to $25.4 million for its violations of the law.
The county has already completed a series of short-term fixes to use deep injection wells at Central County to accept reclaimed water from Bee Ridge to reduce the occurrences of spills.
A solicitation to design the conversion of Bee Ridge to an advanced wastewater treatment facility has also been issued by the county. That conversion, county staff estimates, carries a price tag of $157 million, which will be paid for through an increase in fees paid by county utility customers, not through the county’s general fund.