The Sarasota Journal

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SARASOTA COUNTY –– A letter sent to a Sarasota County attorney by a representative of three environmental groups contained both a warning and offers of assistance.

The letter sent by Justin Bloom of Suncoast Waterkeepers warned the county that it was in violation of a stipulated order entered in the federal district court in Tampa last December.

That stipulation provided for remedial actions the county agreed to take to settle a lawsuit filed by the environmental groups alleging violations of the Clean Water Act by the county after a series of unauthorized spills at the county’s wastewater treatment plants.

The letter, dated May 11, pointed out that the county had not met deadlines imposed by the stipulated order for a sanitary sewer overflow response plan and the fats, oils, and grease program. In addition, there were too few details contained in the county’s first semi-annual report to ensure compliance with the settlement.

After detailing specific details of alleged noncompliance and offering solutions to remedy the situation, Bloom goes on to state that the letter is not meant as a notice of dispute.

“Rather, this letter conveys the concerns of the Environmental Groups with a proposed solution that resolves those concerns, using the same mechanism we used for concerns raised last December,” Bloom wrote.

In an email, Bloom emphasized that point.

“Our approach here is to build on the good dialogue we’ve had with the county and to offer them time to respond and some suggestions and resources to help them.  I anticipate that our concerns will be resolved,” Bloom wrote.

He added, “We also pointed out in the letter the good progress that the County has made and complemented their approach to resolving problems.”

In an email to commissioners on May 11, Assistant County Administrator Mark Cunningham informed them of the letter from Bloom and that the goal was to have a response delivered by tomorrow, May 15.

County Administrator Jonathan Lewis then added his thoughts in a separate email reply.

“Not goal let’s have it done by the end of the week,” Lewis wrote.

The settlement agreement came after commissioners approved a consent agreement with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection last August which mandated 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, a project which is already underway.

The consent order noted that the county had 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.

Following those disclosures, Suncoast Waterkeepers filed their lawsuit, after notifying the county over a year ago of their intent to do so. That letter of intent was the first notice that commissioners and Lewis had of the spills as utilities staff had not disclosed the problems at the treatment facilities.

That ultimately led to the sudden resignation of then Utilities Director Scott Schroyer, who was replaced by Mike Mylett.

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Warren Richardson
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