No word from feds on Tampa sewage spat

The U.S. Environmental Agency hasn't responded to a request from a Florida environmental group to correct lax oversight of the city's sewage discharges.
An environmental group in February asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intervene to make Tampa deal with its sewage discharges. The federal agency hasn’t responded yet.
An environmental group in February asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to intervene to make Tampa deal with its sewage discharges. The federal agency hasn’t responded yet.
Published May 28
Updated May 28

TAMPA — Back in February, a Tallahassee environmental group made a front-page splash with a federal complaint charging Tampa with polluting the bay with inadequately treated discharges from its Howard F. Curren sewage plant.

The city pushed back, saying Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the environmental group, had its facts wrong.

Is Tampa really "the poster child for Florida's clean water crisis," as the group alleged when it asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to intervene? Or was the group off-base in its criticism?

The federal agency invited to settle the dispute has been silent.

Jerry Phillips, the attorney who prepared the complaint for the environmental group, said the group hasn’t given up, but it hasn’t heard a peep from the federal government.

That's not unusual since President Donald Trump took office, Phillips said. The group has only received an acknowledgement of receipt for two of the dozen or so complaints the organization has filed.

According to the group, there have been 288 sewage overflows in Tampa since 2012 and 95 since the latest permit was issued in 2015. The Curren sewage plant releases wastewater with too many nutrients into Tampa Bay, the group says, and has been in non-compliance with its permit for half of the last three years and in serious non-compliance for two quarters during that period.

Tampa officials have maintained that the group's data analysis is off-base. They say the vast majority of those spills were minor, less than 1,000 gallons, and primarily caused by grease being flushed into sewers by cooking in private homes. The non-compliance issues were caused by minor reporting errors or contamination of samples that were later explained to state environmental regulators, they said.

READ MORE: Is Tampa the poster child for polluting the bay?

Wastewater Director Eric Weiss said the city has conducted a study related to chemical by-products sometimes produced when the city removes chlorine from its highly-treated reclaimed water before releasing it into Tampa Bay. The study found no harm to marine life or risk to public health and led to Florida Department of Environmental Protection raising the permitted levels of those by-products ,Weiss said.

"The city takes great pride in the water quality in this facility," Weiss said of the Curren plant.

In the February filing, the environmental group asked Gov. Ron DeSantis to "fix" the state's environmental protection department, which it accused of lax oversight of Tampa's sewage treatment.

A week later, the state responded by saying the group was inaccurately portraying the rigor of its oversight.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said it has fined Tampa for its illegal discharges and required the city to purchase $656,000 in additional bypass pumps and generators after sewage spills following Hurricane Irma in 2017.

An email from agency spokeswoman Shannon Herbon also questioned the environmental group's conclusions about the severity of Tampa's wastewater woes, pointing out that the city exceeded allowable nitrogen limits in only three samples over the last 15 years.

"PEER (the environmental group) has attempted once again to perpetuate an inaccurate characterization of the department’s enforcement, based on misinterpreted information. It’s important to note that DEP's current statewide compliance rate remains at a very high 96 percent, a point that is ignored by PEER, but which is the true measure of environmental protection," Herbon wrote in a Feb. 12 email.

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727)893-8459. Follow@CharlieFrago.

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