Longboat Key expects to face penalties following major sewage spill near Sarasota Bay

Sarasota County

LONGBOAT KEY, Fla. (WFLA) – Following one month of water sample testing from a third-party consultant, Longboat Key officials were pleased to learn major sewage had little impact on the short-term health of Sarasota Bay.

Following several tests between July 1 and July 30, independent contractor Environmental Science Associates or ESA concluded “there was no evidence of even a short term impact of the sewage leak on bacteria levels in Sarasota Bay.”

“We think it is good news,” said Longboat Key Town Manager Tom Harmer. “Obviously an unfortunate incident that occurred, but the test results indicate that there really was no impact to the bay.”

Following the June spill, the town faced sharp criticism in its response to the mainline break. One of the big questions surrounded the two-week gap between when officials believe the spill started and when the town alerted state officials and local residents of the pipe break.

“There was some sense that there may have been a meter issue, so both sides went through a series of steps trying to identify what was causing some of the misreadings in the meters,” explained the town manager. “It wasn’t until that June 29 date that both sides got together and actually jointly shut off and tested and did certain things with the valves that they realized that it actually may be a leak. Both teams went out on the water and on the land and discovered it. That same day once we discovered it, our public works director contacted the FDEP.”

Local environmentalists were relieved to see minimal short term impacts on Sarasota Bay.

“We’re just very lucky that the spill happened up in the mangroves and not in the bay because it would have been catastrophic if it had been in the bay,” said Longboat Key resident Rusty Chinnis.

Founder of Suncoast Waterkeeper Justin Bloom agrees.

“I think that it is a really positive report that indicates that we are fortunate in that the spill wasn’t as bad as we had all feared,” said Bloom. “It is a testament I think to the ability of mangroves to absorb and to mitigate pollution. Had there not been mangroves there, had a developer that owns the land where the sewage spill actually occurred had his way years ago and being able to turn that into a marina, I think we would be looking at a terrible situation but as it is, the mangroves seem to have been able to at least in the short term minimize the pollution.”

The long term impacts are still up in the air.

“I think it is safe to assume that with a sewage spill of that size, there are going to be environmental impacts in the mid and long-term, but I think we’ve got a put that also into context. There are many sources of pollution that are impacting Sarasota Bay. Sewage is one of many and we really need to minimize and address the sewage spills and make sure they don’t happen in the future, but also not lose focus on the bay as a dynamic estuary that has a lot of sources of pollution that we need to wrap our arms around,” said Bloom.

Now that locals have a better idea of the impact of the spill on Sarasota Bay, all eyes are on local infrastructure.

“This and all the other spills that happened in Manatee County, Sarasota, Tampa, Clearwater, Largo, everywhere, this is a big problem,” said Chinnis. “We just need to make sure that we fix the infrastructure. It is not coming down from the federal level, so we need the municipalities and the state level to take action.”

Longboat Key officials say they’re actively working to make improvements.

“Even before this started, we were working with our consultant to plan for a redundant pipe and on June 1, we had a commission meeting where the consultants presented the status of that plan and at the end of that month actually was when the leak happened,” said Harmer. “We are still advancing and we are trying to expedite that effort which is to design and permit a redundant pipe. The original report to the commission indicated it would take us at least until 2021 to receive the permit, but we are trying to see if there’s a way that that can be expedited especially in light of the leak.”

Bloom is hopeful improvements happen sooner than later.

“I think that they are going to go as quickly as they can to replace this pipe. It is going to be expensive. I think this is also an opportunity for Longboat Key and other municipalities around here to really take a look at the state of their sewage infrastructure and their environmental infrastructure in general including stormwater infrastructure and make improvements,” said Bloom.

As for penalties, officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection say they expect to have enforcement actions, including penalties, finalized in the next week or two.

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