Longboat Key leaders are set to hold another private meeting this month to discuss how to address the repercussions from the town’s June 2020 mainland sewage line break and spill of millions of gallons of effluent.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection seeks $188,382 in civil penalties and costs from the town, though that figure has been reduced from the initial proposal of $242,652.50.
“I don’t think there’s any one specific reason that I could give you,” Town Manager Tom Harmer said about the state's reduction. “It’s just been part of our back and forth with the state.”
Harmer said the lawyers on both sides have negotiated the language of the proposed consent order. He also mentioned the formula the FDEP uses to determine penalties, based on the size of the spill. FDEP initially estimated the spill at 17 million gallons, though a town-hired consultant delivered a report estimating the spill, which took place about 400 feet from the shores of Sarasota Bay between June 17-30, at 14.7 million.
Longboat Key town commissioners can also choose to offset the penalty by implementing an in-kind environmental project worth at least $281,073, subject to FDEP approval.
The private meeting among the Town Commission, Harmer, Town Attorney Maggie Mooney and other lawyers representing Longboat Key is scheduled for Feb. 22. Though such negotiations are allowed in secret, minutes of those meetings are public once a decision has been made.
“The shade meeting will be focused on the legal strategies of whether or not to accept, and if there’s anything additional the town needs to discuss with the FDEP before they accept the agreement,” Harmer said.
The town also held private meetings on Jan. 5, 2021; Oct. 19, 2020; and Sept. 30, 2020.
The FDEP and town have also agreed to several deadline extensions to reach an agreement on the proposed consent order. Initially, the deadline was Oct. 23, 2020, before getting extended to Dec. 15, 2020, then to Jan. 22, 2021, and then again to Feb. 22, 2021.
“The commissioners will be updated on the latest proposed order based on direction they gave us previously at the prior shade meeting,” Harmer said. “So, what issues have been addressed and how have they been addressed since the last shade meeting?”
Any course of action that comes out of the Feb. 22 private meeting is subject to formal approval at a public meeting. Harmer said the public meeting could happen the same day depending on what gets decided.
“They could reconvene in a special meeting after the shade meeting and take action,” Harmer said.
Environmental Science Associates determined in August 2020 the environmental effect of the break was low based on its water-sample testing in the Sarasota Bay waters.
Greeley and Hansen’s report on Aug. 14, 2017, marked the last inspection on the pipe before the leak. At that 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.
Town Finance Director Sue Smith said the sewage break has already cost the town $448,392.40 as of Friday, Feb. 12. It includes the cost of emergency repairs and other fees.
After collecting sewage from the town's system, smaller pipes converge at a pumping station on Gulf Bay Road. From there, the town's untreated sewage flows through a 20-inch diameter iron pipe under the bed of Sarasota Bay. It terminates at a treatment facility north of Conquistador Parkway in Bradenton.