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Estimated 26 million gallons of raw sewage spills onto wetlands threatening Sarasota Bay

Sarasota County

LONGBOAT KEY, Fla. (WFLA) — Longboat Key officials say they discovered a break in the sewage line that runs under Sarasota Bay from the island to the Manatee County Wastewater Treatment Facility on June 29. The break was repaired as of 7:15 on June 30.

According to a news release from Town Manager Tom Harmer, “the break occurred within a section of pipe located on undeveloped land leading to the wastewater treatment facility, not within the portion of the pipe located beneath Sarasota Bay. Initially, Town and Manatee County Utilities staff believed there may have been meter and equipment issues causing anomalous flow readings. Not until June 29 did they determine there was an actual leak in the pipeline”.

“The Florida Department of Environmental Protection State Watch Office was notified by the Town’s Public Works Director on June 29, 2020, at 1:17 p.m, immediately following discovery of the leak,” according to the release.

The date of occurrence on the State Watch Office’s incident report, says the sewage leak started back on June 17.

“The breach appears to have occurred from June 17 to 30 and the estimated volume discharged is between 26 and 28 million gallons,” said a DEP spokesperson.

“We all need to do a lot better job of notifying the public of the potential health issues here and to keep people informed as to what is going on,” said Suncoast Waterkeeper founder Justin Bloom. “I think there has been a failure of that with this spill. It has been going on since the 17th and we are only now learning about it,” he continued.

Bloom, kayaked to the Manatee County site Tuesday after learning about the sewage leak. He dedicates much of his time to protecting water quality in our area, so for him, this was a big hit.

“We are pretty shocked and really disappointed. This is an area of Sarasota Bay that we have been fighting to protect for many years,” said Bloom.

Bloom observed a localized algae bloom along what he describes as the most significant mangrove fringe in Sarasota Bay that has yet to be developed.

Bloom’s colleague captured aerial footage of the site of the sewage leak. Crews had to plow through protected mangroves to create a makeshift road to get heavy equipment to the source of the breach.

“Given the location of the spill, it was back in the wetlands and the mangroves at least 100 yards off of the shoreline. With 26 to 28-million gallons of sewage in wetlands, a significant portion of that is going to make its way into the bay one way or another,” said Bloom

Fisherman who frequent the area just southeast of Cortez tell 8 On Your Side, they’ve already noticed an impact.

“It just smells like raw sewage,” said commercial fisherman Luther Sasser. “It smelled really bad and the water quality is really dirty. There’s no visibility and a lot of the fishing that we do, we need visibility and clean water,” he continued.

Sasser worries about the long term effects a sewage spill of this size could have on Sarasota Bay and in turn, his livelihood.

“It is scary. It is a livelihood issue. We count on those fish and we need them. Dirty water and pollution, fish don’t like it. They will run from it if they can and if they can’t run from it, it kills them,” said Sasser.

“It is going to impact wildlife, birds, marine habitat, marine critters…these are bad pollutants,” said Bloom.

Suncoast Waterkeeper took samples near the site of the spill to get a better grasp on the environmental impact. Bloom is expecting to get results back ahead of the holiday weekend.

“I think that there is a lot of water out there that would dissipate the impacts of the sewage spill, but there is still that risk that this might soil our water that people recreate in and create a public health hazard,” said Bloom. “I hate to tell people not to go swimming on the Fourth of July, but it is something that I think you should be aware of,” he continued.

DEP officials are investigating the wastewater spill while DEP’s environmental specialists are working to obtain and review all necessary information and data to complete their regulatory review.

DEP is also working to determine causes and possible solutions to prevent unauthorized discharges in the future and will continue to work closely with the Town of Longboat Key to address those issues.

The department says it will hold Longboat Key accountable by identifying necessary restoration and/or remediation actions, with the possibility of enforcement including fines and penalties for associated violations.

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