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Scrap metal yards have sent polluted runoff into Tampa Bay for years, suit says

The state has failed to stop Trademark Metals Recycling from polluting at levels as high as 24 times allowable limits, environmental groups say.

Stormwater carrying toxic metals and petroleum products has been flowing for years into Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay from six scrap metal recycling centers, according to a lawsuit filed by state environmental groups.

Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Suncoast Waterkeeper and Our Children’s Earth Foundation filed the suit against Tampa-based Trademark Metals Recycling, alleging that the company is violating the federal Clean Water Act and stormwater permits issued by the state of Florida.

The permit violations date back to 2015 or earlier and pollutant levels have exceeded allowable limits since at least 2014, according to the suit, filed in May in U.S. District Court in Tampa.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection isn’t doing enough to stop the flow, said an attorney for the three environmental groups.

“These are just a major source of stormwater pollution,” said Annie Beaman, director of advocacy and outreach with Our Children’s Earth Foundation. “It’s just like a messy, outdoor stockpiling situation with scrap metal that can be corroded — vehicles. So the pollutants come off with the stormwater when there are big rain events, which of course is a big issue in Florida.”

Health effects occur over the long term, Beaman said, but the more exposure an individual experiences the greater its impact will be. Children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable because the metals can affect reproductive health and developing babies.

The effects of runoff pollution vary with specific bodies of water, the lawsuit said, but in addition to the health risks, it can harm natural ecosystems, threaten commercial fishing and harms marine life.

Trademark Metals defended its environmental record, calling itself “a leader in managing stormwater.”

“We are surprised we have been targeted with this suit and strongly disagree with the allegations,” environmental manager Joe Stalker said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

The attorney representing the environmental groups, Justin Bloom of Sarasota, said communication with Trademark Metals has been positive and he hopes to settle the case before trial. If a court finds Trademark Metals in violation of the Clean Water Act and its stormwater permits, it could face civil penalties totaling more than $100 million.

The lawsuit describes concentrations of metals like aluminum, lead and zinc at each of six locations in Tampa, Clearwater, Sarasota and Seffner. The state allows certain levels of these metals in stormwater runoff from scrap metal centers but relies on self-reporting from permit holders. According to the suit, Trademark Metals has exceeded these levels again and again.

At one center along Hillsborough Bay, on Port Sutton Road in Tampa, zinc exceeded levels allowed in every stormwater sample taken for the past five years. In one sample taken in 2015, zinc was recorded at 2.82 milligrams per liter, more than 24 times the concentration allowed. Other metals that exceeded allowable levels included lead, aluminum and copper.

Another Trademark Metals center in Sarasota recorded levels exceeding the allowable limits of aluminum, iron and zinc in every stormwater sample taken for the past six years. Copper exceeded allowable levels in almost every sample taken for the past eight years.

The suit also said Trademark Metals artificially improved the quality of its water samples by taking them after large storms had washed away pollutants, failed to install adequate monitoring and reporting programs and failed to complete yearly evaluations.

The company is owned by David J. Joseph Co., one of the largest scrap metal companies in the United States, according to its website. Trademark Metals operates 22 recycling centers in Florida, eight of them around Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay.

Fires have broken out at the company’s centers several times, most recently in 2018 when a 25-foot high pile of metal burned for 90 minutes at the scrap yard on Port Sutton Road. A 2007 fire in Tampa lasted two days and burned through 6,000 tons of debris. Other fires were reported in 2011 and 2016.

The three environmental groups bringing the suit have been working to address water pollution problems in Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay for several years, Bloom said, in part because the Department of Environmental Protection hasn’t acted to keep pollutants from entering Florida’s waters.

The department sent letters to five of the six Trademark Metals locations named in the lawsuit, outlining ongoing pollution problems and requesting “appropriate actions,” the suit said. The company failed to take appropriate action, the suit said.

“This is, I think, an example of a lack of historic DEP enforcement throughout the state of not following through to ensure that permit holders comply with the terms,” Bloom said.

The department inspected Trademark Metals’ centers in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Sarasota counties within the last month, DEP spokeswoman Shannon Herbon said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. The scrap yards have stormwater pollution prevention plans in place and have conducted quarterly monitoring inspections and annual site evaluations.

Water samples taken at each scrap yard included pollutants that exceeded allowable levels, Herbon said. When this happens at an operation regulated by the DEP, adjustments must be made to management practices and stormwater pollution prevention plans.

State environmental specialists are working to complete a review of Trademark Metals scrap yards to see if violations are contribute to pollution levels higher than allowed.

“The department will hold the facilities accountable,” Hebron said, “if any violations are identified and determine the necessary corrective actions, with the possibility of enforcement including fines and penalties for the associated violations.”

Beaman of Our Children’s Earth said citizen lawsuits such as this are more effective at solving certain pollution problems than relying on regulatory agencies. She said the Department of Environmental Protection is doing its best but has a huge workload.

“We’ve done a lot of investigations and the enforcement mechanism that’s often used — it’s not as effective as a federal lawsuit can be,” Beaman said.

The answer often is better management practices — keeping scrapyard storage areas clean, avoiding contact with rain and retaining or treating the polluted runoff onsite.

“I think we really do share the goal to clean up these areas and prevent pollution from impacting waterways,” she said. “So it’s just a matter of how we get there.”

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