Three environmental groups are threatening to sue the cities of St. Petersburg, Gulfport and Treasure Island for discharging raw and partially treated sewage in local water, violating the federal Clean Water Act.
The three municipalities have been given a 60-day notice of an intent to file suit by Suncoast Waterkeeper in Sarasota as well as Our Children's Earth Foundation and Ecological Rights Foundation, both based in California.
St. Petersburg was given notice of the potential lawsuit in late September, Gulfport in late October and Treasure Island in mid November.
Sewage infrastructure failings are a regional problem in the Tampa Bay area, said Justin Bloom, attorney for Suncoast Waterkeeper, and other municipalities are also being investigated for illegal discharges.
"It's a systemic problem," he said.
Sewage facilities are aging, with cracked pipes leaking effluent especially during heavy summer storms, Bloom said.
Municipalities are making improvements, he said, but not fast enough.
"Improvements are inadequate to keep up with the needs," Bloom said. "This is a major undertaking."
Hurricane Hermine caused St. Petersburg to dump tens of millions of gallons of sewage into Tampa Bay in September.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has said the city hopes to finish expanding the capacity at its wastewater treatment plant and finish other major upgrades but not before 2018 or 2019.
Treasure Island, which contracts with St. Petersburg for its sewage treatment, pumps 1.4 million gallons a day of raw sewage to St. Petersburg's treatment plant.
Mike Helfrich, Treasure Island's public works director, said the city is in the process of lining the inside of its sewer pipes with high-density plastic to stop leaks.
In the past few years, the city has spent about $300,000 annually to repair its sewer lines, many of which were installed in the 1950s, he said. Pump and lift stations are also being overhauled.
"We are constantly videoing our sewer pipes by using a remote control vehicle with a camera to show us where the cracks and leaks are," he said. "If we believe there is a problem, then we get the contractor out to fix it."
Bloom said his organization recognizes the efforts cities are making, but it's still not enough.
"I would assume none of the municipalities are sitting on their hands, but we are finding their actions are dramatically inadequate," he said.
Assistant city attorney Joseph Patner, head of litigation for the city of St. Petersburg, said he is speaking with attorneys from the three environmental groups "to see if there is a mutual interest to be pursued."
"A healthy dialogue would be our first priority at this stage," he said.
Bloom said he hopes to work out an agreement with the cities to prevent a lawsuit filing.
"The main thing we are asking for is for them to come into compliance with the Clean Water Act," he said. "We are telling them to step it up to stop these incidents from happening."
Tiffany Schauer, executive director of Our Children's Earth Foundation, said there has been successful litigation against other cities in similar situations.
"In those cases, legal action was essential to ensure that impacted citizens would have a seat at the table," she said.