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Sewage line spill raises concerns over fragile Sarasota Bay

Longboat Key has already begun process of ultimately replacing critical link to mainland.

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  • | 9:20 a.m. July 7, 2020
A swath of algae is pinned up against the eastern shore of Sarasota Bay by the west wind a week after Longboat Key reported a sewer line break in Bradenton.
A swath of algae is pinned up against the eastern shore of Sarasota Bay by the west wind a week after Longboat Key reported a sewer line break in Bradenton.
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Last month's break of the Longboat Key sewage system's only link to the mainland and a recent but unrelated spill into the estuary from Bradenton raises concerns about the health of the region's fragile ecosystem. 

Town officials reported to state regulators on June 29 an estimated 25.8 million gallons of untreated sewage might have spilled in the break of the 20-inch pipe that has operated under Sarasota Bay to a Manatee County treatment plant since 1975. It's possible the pipe had been leaking for nearly two weeks, when town public works officials first noticed a discrepancy in instrument readings. The pipe was repaired by late in the day on June 30.

Water samples from the bay have been taken by Florida Department of Environmental Protection and private organizations, though no health or no-swim advisories have been posted. The city of Sarasota tested water at a variety of city parks, including Lido Beach, City Island, the 10th Street Boat Ramp and Bird Key Park. Spokesman Jason Bartolone said the city's samples all came back normal. 

While the immediate threat is hard to quantify, it's not the first threat to Sarasota Bay's health, say environmental advocates. 

“Nobody knows exactly, and yet, this is not new,” Suncoast Waterkeeper board member Rusty Chinnis said of potential impacts to Sarasota Bay. “There was one in about a month ago in Manatee County, it was pretty bad. Sarasota had a bunch of them in the past.

“What happens over time is it just slowly builds up the nitrogen content in the bay and the harmful algae blooms like red tide — like [these] big masses of floating algae you see these days — feed on that nitrogen, so basically it exacerbates. Now these things have been called, and really are, natural, but they're not natural to the extent that we're seeing them now.”

Following the previous Bradenton spill in June,  Suncoast Waterkeeper opened a dialog with Manatee County public works and utilities officials to try to understand why the spills keep happening, and what can be done, emphasizing simple solutions first.

“The analogy I like to use is, if the lamp’s not working, you don’t start tearing the lamp apart,” Chinnis said. “You make sure it’s plugged in. Sometimes I feel like, ‘OK, we’re going to tear this thing up and decide to rebuild it.’ Yeah, but it’s not plugged in.” 

Over the Independence Day weekend, rafts of smelly muck were pinned to portions of the bay's eastern shores by a persistent west wind. 

Town Manager Tom Harmer in a statement to the media said the out-of-the-ordinary pressure and flow readings were initially attributed to an instrumentation problem. A state incident report filed by the town with the Department of Emergency Management indicates the incident began on June 17 on El Conquistador Parkway in Bradenton. The cause of the break had not yet been made public. 

Harmer told Town Commissioners he was notified on June 29 that members of the Public Works Department staff had begun investigating a possible break.  Working with Manatee County public works staff, the break was discovered in an underground portion of the pipe, between the shoreline of Sarasota Bay and the pipe's terminus at the Manatee County treatment plant north of 53rd Avenue. Harmer said DEP was notified at 1:17 p.m. on Monday. 

“This is the only pipe from the island to the mainland that treats all of the sewage on the island,” Harmer said on June 30. “As I understand it, it's a complete failure, a complete break in the line, so there's...I'm sure a significant or at least the potential for significant discharge at the break.”

The pipe, built in 1973 and in use since 1975, gathers sewage from the entire town and feeds it east from from a pumping station Gulf Bay Road. Remaining about four to eight feet below the bottom of Sarasota Bay, the pipeline emerges runs through an area of new and recent development on its way to  the treatment facility adjacent to the Manatee County Golf Course in Bradenton. 

 In 2016, a town consultant inspected the pipeline and concluded it was in better-than-expected shape and had 20-25 years of service remaining, heading off a plan to begin work on replacing it. 

Town Commissioners on June 1 heard a presentation from Public Works Director Isaac Brownman on preliminary plans to build a redundant sewer link to the mainland that would ultimately become a replacement. The project was first included in the town’s five-year capital budget in 2019 for preliminary design, permitting and design-alternative analysis. The idea, Brownman said, was to work through the initial stages of permitting for an open-trench design across the bay, which would cost less than horizontal boring. 

"Obviously, if something were to ever happen to that pipeline, as it erodes over time, that could be a significant disaster,” Brownman told commissioners on June 1.

On the town’s most recent timeline for the proposal, preliminary plans and permit applications would be undertaken this summer, workshops for the public were anticipated to begin in winter and spring, with possible permit approval by the end of May 2021.

Brownman proposed seeking permitting sooner rather than later, because an approved permit has a shelf life of 5-10 years, with possible renewals extending further. In his presentation, he said construction could happen in the latter portions of that timeframe, while also testing and inspecting along the way.

Town Commissioners last week attempted to bring up the incident at an emergency meeting to vote on mandatory mask use, but were advised by Town Attorney Maggie Mooney that such a discussion was not allowed under the singular-purpose of the emergency meeting.

In 2016, town commissioners set aside plans to spend around $25 million on a new sewage line from the island to the mainland based on consultant Greely & Hansen's report that the iron pipeline was not in danger of failure and was in good condition, finding no leaks or signs of serious corrosion.

To perform the study, the firm ran a “smart ball” to search for inconsistencies within the pipe through the sewage system. Divers measured the thickness in the pipe using an underwater ultrasonic gauge, as well, among other methods.



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