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Water advocates file sewage spill lawsuit against city of Largo

The allegations follow cases brought against St. Petersburg, Gulfport and Sarasota County.
Hurricane Hermine deluged the Tampa Bay region in 2016 and overloaded sewage systems, including in Largo, where manholes spewed water. This overflow included bits of toilet paper and a dollar bill.
Hurricane Hermine deluged the Tampa Bay region in 2016 and overloaded sewage systems, including in Largo, where manholes spewed water. This overflow included bits of toilet paper and a dollar bill.
Published Aug. 19, 2020

Environmental advocates are suing the city of Largo, accusing officials there of violating the Clean Water Act by discharging contaminated water into Tampa Bay.

The allegations parallel cases brought in recent years against St. Petersburg, Gulfport and Sarasota County, highlighting sewage overflows and other discharges that advocates say are tainted with chemicals, including nitrogen, in violation of permits. The lawsuit, filed in federal court by the Suncoast Waterkeeper, Tampa Bay Waterkeeper and Our Children’s Earth Foundation, aims to force Largo to improve its sewer system and cut down on pollution.

“Largo is trying hard. They certainly don’t have their heads in the sand,” said Justin Bloom, a lawyer on the case and founder of the Suncoast Waterkeeper, which advocates for clean water. He said he is particularly concerned with pollutants getting into Old Tampa Bay, a segment of the estuary that has suffered from algal blooms. “We recognize the efforts they’ve been making. We just think that more needs to be done.”

A lawyer for Largo, in a response to the advocates, wrote that the city discharges wastewater to a retention pond in Feather Sound, not “navigable waters” regulated by the federal Clean Water Act. He noted that local officials have “been proactive in maintaining and upgrading” pipes and treatment systems, spending $80 million in the last decade.

“The City strenuously denies the allegations of the complaint filed by the Tampa Bay waterkeepers,” city manager Henry Schubert wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. He declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation.

The city’s letter provides a more detailed defense of past overflows. Some of the failures cited in the lawsuit, it notes, happened on private property and were not the city’s responsibility. Others involved equipment failures or flooding from severe weather, problems that were fixed or unlikely to happen again. Largo provided a list of measures taken to limit spills, including a pump project, new pipes and manhole repairs.

Other problems, like high levels of one chemical in wastewater discharges, are being worked out, and the city said it has more time to find a fix under an agreement with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. For a number of violations, the lawyer wrote, regulators have levied fines, making the lawsuit unnecessary.

Largo’s back and forth with the Department of Environmental Protection has stretched across the last decade, involving a consent order that has been amended multiple times. The latest version proposed by state regulators says that the city exceeded nitrogen levels in discharges every month this year through June. The state set a deadline of October 2022 for local officials to comply with limits.

Bloom, the lawyer from Suncoast Waterkeeper, said wastewater eventually reaches Old Tampa Bay, and the advocates are convinced pollutants, including nitrogen, may be a factor in the harmful algal blooms. The Tampa Bay Estuary Program has spotlighted concentrations of Pyrodinium bahamense, a potentially toxic organism different from the more widely known and feared Red Tide.

“Year after year after year they’ve not been able to reduce those levels,” Bloom said of the city’s discharges. A judge dismissed the waterkeepers’ initial complaint based on issues with how it was written. Lawyers refiled a new version this week. Advocates’ other cases, Bloom said, have been resolved before trial. Most recently, they brought a claim against a scrap recycling company.

The environmental groups do not seek a windfall, according to Bloom, but hope for a settlement to direct fines toward improving wastewater infrastructure.

Florida lawmakers this year increased fines for some spills, a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis. Shannon Herbon, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency works with governments and businesses to end problematic overflows and levies citations where appropriate.

“The department takes every unpermitted discharge seriously,” she wrote in an email.