The tiny town of Everglades City faces what could be devastating fines over its aging sewage system, and Collier County has been asked to step in to help save it.
The city — population 400 — has been running its wastewater treatment plant without a permit since July 5, according to a lawsuit filed against the city by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. That violation alone carries up to a $10,000 a day fine.
The city has also failed to make 12 of the 24 necessary repairs and replacements to the treatment plant that it agreed to make in 2013 to settle the state's last lawsuit over the failing plant, state regulators said. The city agreed then to pay a $1,000 fine each day it didn't meet a series of deadlines for replacing pipes and parts, upgrading infrastructure and designing plans for a complete replacement of the treatment plant itself.
The city has been missing those deadlines since 2013, according to the complaint.
Everglades City officials also have missed deadlines to respond to the complaint in court and have been found in default by the clerk of courts, which could allow a judge to rule against the city without it mounting a defense.
Mayor Sammy Hamilton wouldn't say why the city hasn't responded to the complaint. He said temporary repairs are being made and any fines will be avoided.
State regulators are less confident that the city can afford the fixes.
In a letter sent last week seeking help from Collier County, Paula L. Cobb, the Department of Environmental Protection's deputy secretary for regulatory programs, said Everglades City officials don't believe they have the means to get the treatment plant up to date.
"Collier County, which operates one of the best run utilities in the state, could improve significantly the utility service and quality of life in the Everglades City area," Cobb wrote. "The department is hoping that Collier County will join with the department in developing and implementing a solution."
Over the next six weeks, Collier County utility officials will assess the work that needs to be done at the Everglades plant and estimate how much it might cost county taxpayers if the county does step in, said Nick Casalanguida, deputy county manager.
"I don't think the county wants to take it over," Casalanguida said. "It's in pretty rough shape. We're going to work with the DEP and our consultants to kick the tires and see what the costs and liabilities are."
If the county moves forward, either in taking over the utility or helping the city make the repairs, all the costs associated with the work will have to come from the state or the city, said commissioners Penny Taylor and Tim Nance.
"This looks like a chronic problem," Taylor said. "We should help assess the situation and facilitate a solution. But Everglades City is going to have to figure out a way to pay for this."
Everglades City plans to build a new treatment plant and will be finishing a study in the coming weeks to determine what that might cost, Hamilton said.
"It's getting fixed," Hamilton said. "I'll fix it like I always do. We have a survey coming for how much it will cost to tear it down and build a brand new plant. Then I'll go out and get the money. I always can get the money. Everyone knows what the mayor has done for Everglades City. I'll have that all finished up. But right now we've got to go ahead and do the things we got to do to keep from getting fined."
Hamilton said he expects a new treatment plant to cost up to $15 million. He believes temporary repairs will keep the city from being fined and said he has been working with the state to find a funding source to build the new plant.
In addition to the new plant, the city needs to replace outdated equipment and repair a number of broken pumps, flow meters and air compressors that stopped working years ago.
Every day, the plant treats an average of 140,000 gallons of liquid sewage from sinks and toilets throughout the small city.
There is no evidence that any untreated wastewater has been dumped from the plant, said Jess Boyd, spokeswoman for the department of environmental protection.
"The goal is to bring the facility back into compliance to ensure human health and safety and that of the environment," Boyd said.
Because the city has failed to respond to the complaint, the state will ask the circuit court for a judgment to compel the fixes and enforce the fines, she said.
The state is also working with the Florida Rural Water Association to immediately study the system and find any operational and maintenance changes the city can make while the repairs are being made, Boyd said.