ST. PETE BEACH — Hefty fines are likely if city officials do not follow through on plans to spend about $2.5 million in the next year to replace and fix sewer system pumps and lift stations that failed in November, dumping an unknown amount of sewage on some streets.
City Manager Mike Bonfield said Friday his staff plans to meet with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection within the next few weeks to negotiate the terms of a proposed "consent order," which as now written includes heavy fines for noncompliance. A consent order is an agreement between two or more parties to avoid litigation.
Bonfield said he will be "cooperative" but also strongly opposes "risking the city to unnecessary oversight."
The only error the city made, Bonfield said, was in not meeting the DEP's 24-hour reporting requirement when the spills occurred.
"By their (the DEP's) rules, that is an excusable violation. We don't feel like we should be exposed to this and we are not going to easily accept these penalties," Bonfield said.
The proposed consent order calls for the city to be fined $250 a day if it fails to comply with the requirements of the final consent order, including timely reporting of sewage spills.
Primarily, the DEP wants to impose a strict time line on sewer repair projects the city has already budgeted and approved.
Those projects include spending about $2.6 million to replace two pump stations and rehabilitate several lift stations.
During October and November's heavy rains, smelly, paper- and feces-laden sewage streamed onto Gulf Boulevard near Gulf Winds Drive at least four times after two pumps at the city's Master Pump Station and subsequent temporary pumps failed.
Commission candidate Jim Anderson reported the spill to the DEP and since then has been in repeated contact with that agency, as well as the federal EPA.
"This has turned into a political football. The DEP is reacting solely because Jim Anderson has been constantly calling and writing to them," Bonfield said.
Responding to one of Anderson's emails, Ana Gibbs, external affairs manager for the state DEP, acknowledged the proposed consent order "covers areas beyond the scope" of the initial sewage spill.
Bonfield said the city's consulting engineer "has never seen a consent order like this," saying it calls for "unnecessary oversight" and "excessive" penalties.
The DEP wants to city to submit within three months a policy outlining the procedures it plans to use "to address unauthorized releases, including environmental sampling and public notification."
During the period the consent order is in effect, the city would be required to file a written report with the DEP every six months (June and December) updating the status of the sewer system repairs.
Fines for future sewer system spills range from $500 for a spill or leak of up to 5,000 gallons, to as much as $10,000 for discharges totaling more than 100,000 gallons. The cumulative penalty would be capped at $30,000 per day.
The fines would not apply, however, to discharges the DEP finds are beyond the city's control, such as a 10-year, 24-hour storm event, vandalism, unforeseen blockages or sudden structural, mechanical or electrical failures.
The draft order also notes that the city's own 2001 report to the DEP "concluded" that there was "excessive inflow and infiltration" into its wastewater collection system caused mostly due to rainfall, but does not require the city to address those problems.
"The way the draft is written, it acts like nothing has been done since that report," Bonfield said, stressing some of the city's sewer system is more than 50 years old and is plagued with water infiltration primarily from resident-owned tie-ins to city sewer lines.
"We have spent millions of dollars upgrading the sewer system. We want the DEP to understand what we have done," he said.
In 2008, the city hired a consultant to review the system. As a result, the city significantly increased sewer rates to create a fund that could pay for future sewer repairs, then estimated to cost more than $8 million.
The $2.5 million in repairs planned in the next year will deplete that fund, Bonfield said.
The city's 38.7-mile-long sewer system includes a master pump station and 16 smaller lift stations to handle the sewage produced by up to 20,000 residents and tourists at the peak of the season.