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St. Pete Settles Clean Water Act Lawsuit Over Sewage Releases

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Suzanne Young
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

St. Petersburg leaders have settled a lawsuit filed by environmental groups in 2016 after the city released millions of gallons of sewage into Tampa Bay. 

Under the settlement, the city committed to inspections and improvements to its sewage system. The measures go beyond what was required by a consent order that the Department of Environmental Protection issued in response to the release of up to 200 million gallons of sewage during storms in 2015 and 2016.

“We felt that the consent order that the city entered into with DEP was not going to be adequate to fix the problem,” said Justin Bloom, executive director of Suncoast Waterkeeper. “It lacked adequate investment, investigation and a plan to really fix the infrastructure.”

Suncoast Waterkeeper sued the city under the Federal Clean Water Act. The Ecological Rights Foundation and Our Children’s Earth joined the group in filing the lawsuit.

The settlement has federal oversight and if the city fails to follow the terms, the environmental groups could take it back to court.

“I think that they will follow through,” Bloom said. “I think the public wants them to and I think the city council and the administration and the staff are driven to fixing this problem.” 

The settlement’s requirements include:

* Upgrades to the sewage collection system, including a $7.5 million pump that relocates sewage during major weather events;

*A $200,000 payment to the Tampa Bay Estuary Program for projects that protect and restore the bay;

* Inspections of all gravity sewer lines and force mains;

* More water quality testing, especially in problem areas;

* Prompt disclosure of water quality problems to the public.

The city also must develop an ordinance requiring property owners to repair damaged sewage lines that come from their homes and businesses. The damaged lines allow rainwater into the city’s sewage system during storms, overwhelming it.

Property owners would be responsible for repairing the lines and may get help from grants and other assistance, Bloom said. 

“It’s going to be a tough burden on some of the folks in the city who are having enough trouble just making ends meet,” he said. “I think the city will try to come up with ways to lessen the burden.” 

Had the case gone to court, the city was facing massive fines that would have gone into the federal treasury instead of being used to help repair the sewage system, Bloom said.

“I think that we all agreed and we saw that the city really wanted to do the right thing and fix their sewage system,” he said.

Julio Ochoa is editor of Health News Florida.