Now, town must decide on either paying $188,382 or implementing an environmental project worth at least $281,073.
The Longboat Key Town Commission voted unanimously Monday to accept a consent order from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection after the town’s June 2020 mainland sewage line break and spillage of millions of gallons of effluent.
In the coming weeks, the town still must decide between two options: paying the state $188,382 in civil penalties and costs, or offsetting the amount by implementing an in-kind environmental project worth at least $281,073. An in-kind project would be subject to FDEP approval.
“It was a normal negotiation process that occurred,” Town Manager Tom Harmer said. “We finalized negotiations. We think we received as many changes as we could while still trying to end up with an order that met the state’s needs and requirements and protected our ratepayers going forward.”
Harmer, the Town Commission, Town Attorney Maggie Mooney, Assistant Town Attorney David Jackson, Attorney Ed Steinmeyer and Attorney Jack Fiveash met privately Monday afternoon before commissioners reconvened publicly to vote and ultimately accept the state’s consent order.
Monday's meeting was the fourth private meeting held by the town, which also held private meetings on Jan. 5, 2021; Oct. 19, 2020; and Sept. 30, 2020.
With the help of consultants, Harmer said the town now will conduct additional surveying and testing work at the site of the break, about 400 feet from the shores of Sarasota Bay in Manatee County.
“They’ll still be a fair amount of back and forth between [the town] and the state as we do the evaluations and present things to them,” Harmer said.
Berkeley Research Group determined about 14.7 million gallons of effluent spilled from June 17-30, 2020.
“Clearly, it was an unfortunate event and things happen,” Harmer said. “We’ve worked out I think the language with the FDEP to move past this and focus on the future, and so we’re now ready to do that.”
The consent order requires the town to notify the FDEP within 15 days of the desire to do an in-kind project. Then, the town has 60 days after that to present the project to the state for review.
“We will be sharing with the commission our identified in-kind projects,” Harmer said. “If they have any feedback or input or direction on that, we’ll be happy to take that, but we’re going to develop some initial projects that we think meet the intent and share that with the commission.”
Harmer said the town’s utility fund, which is separate from the general fund, will be used to pay for either the penalty or the in-kind project. Water and sewer customers pay into the utility fund, Harmer said.
In December 2020, consultant Berkeley Research Group found a buried log rubbing against the underground pipeline likely caused the break.
In August 2020, Environmental Science Associates determined the environmental effect of the break was low based on its water-sample testing in the Sarasota Bay waters.
“The environments could have been worse,” Harmer said. “They were relatively minor, but we’re still looking at a number of ways that we can improve the system, including ways to find out sooner if there’s a pressure issue or a flow issue.”
Harmer said he believed the town was “very proactive” in monitoring its pipe even before the June 2020 break. He cited Greeley and Hansen’s report on Aug. 14, 2017. At the time, the pipe was given years of estimated life remaining. The force main was built in 1973.
Longboat Key is in the process of advancing its redundant pipe project, which has an estimated cost of $16 million. The project would first duplicate the pipeline on the mainland side and eventually duplicate the underwater portion, which runs from Longboat Key, under the bed of Sarasota Bay and emerging in mainland Manatee County on the way to the treatment plant.
“Our consultant is still working on [the] design and permitting of that project,” Harmer said. “We see that as a long-term project no matter what.”
Harmer said Longboat Key must present a plan to the FDEP documenting how the town has a plan that is safe and efficient in delivering wastewater.
Earlier this month, Town Finance Director Sue Smith said the sewage break had already cost the town $448,392.40. It includes the cost of emergency repairs and other fees.