Monday marked the deadline for the town of Longboat Key to submit several reports to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection following June’s sewage line break in a patch of mangroves east of Sarasota Bay.
The town was required to submit wastewater flow data; a detailed timeline of events leading up to the spill; capital investment plans for the last three years; an updated sewer overflow response plan; and a capacity, management, operation and maintenance program plan.
The DEP uses Directive 923 to calculate the appropriate penalty, if any is required. It’s unclear how long it will take the state to evaluate the materials and determine whether to penalize the town.
“The length of time to review varies depending on the amount of data submitted,” DEP spokesperson Shannon Herbon wrote in an email.
The town of Longboat Key began collecting water samples on July 1 at six sites from one side of Sarasota Bay to the other. The town hired Environmental Science Associates as an independent contractor to help conduct the water quality tests.
On July 16, ESA principal associate Dr. David Tomasko wrote a nine-page email to Longboat Key Public Works Director Isaac Brownman and his staff about the water sampling efforts from July 1-13.
“The nearshore waters of Sarasota Bay closest to the location of the sewage spill are not substantially impacted by that spill,” Tomasko wrote.
However, Tomasko wrote that areas more than two miles away for the spill had “substantially higher” levels of enterococci and fecal coliform bacteria compared to the part of Sarasota Bay closest to the sewage spill. Ongoing work will determine if higher levels are due to human sewage or decomposing macroalgae and seagrass blades. Macroalgae and seagrass blades can also give rise to elevated values of indicator bacteria.
No direct connection has been made between the spill and rafts of muck spotted on both side of the bay.
On June 29, town officials reported to state regulators an estimated 25.8 million gallons of untreated sewage might have spilled in the break of the 20-inch pipe, which gathers sewage from the entire town and pushes it east from a pumping station on Gulf Bay Road. A subsequent statement from the town said that estimate is likely high and there was no indication what percentage of the spill made it from the coastal area into the bay. An independent testing firm is looking to provide an updated estimate. It is unknown how much of the discharge ended up in Sarasota Bay.
The pipe, which broke underground about 100 yards landward of the bay's shoreline, was repaired on June 30. It terminates at a treatment facility next to the Manatee County Golf Course in Bradenton.
If the DEP decides to fine the town, Longboat Key Revitalization Task Force Chairman Tom Freiwald said he believes the town should pay the amount in full.
“We’ve been worried about that sewer line for years,” Freiwald said. “Whatever the Department of Environmental Protection comes up with is what we should do financially. I think that we should do that and not make a big fuss about it.”
Freiwald said he believes there’s “no question” the town needs to replace the line after June’s break, especially after the town considered replacing the pipe a few years ago.
“We owe it to all the communities that are affected by any kind of spills in the bay,” Freiwald said. “We have an obligation to make that pipe as safe as we can possibly make it. At the same time, I don’t think we need to bring in 25 contractors and start digging tomorrow. It’s gotta be a high-priority project, but well-put together [and] well-thought out.”
Freiwald’s neighbor Susan Veshosky said she supports Town Manager Tom Harmer’s proposal to “advance the redundant pipe project” as part of Longboat Key’s post-leak plan.
“We need to look at that and replace what’s there,” Veshosky said. “This bay is a livelihood for so many people. We don’t want to pollute it.”