Everglades City's failing sewage plant pumped inadequately treated liquid sewage — hundreds of thousands of gallons of it — into nearby mangroves in late March and early April, according to state inspectors.
The Department of Environmental Protection has asked a judge to issue an injunction to force the city to make fixes at the plant to stop similar discharges. The city also needs to haul off wastewater from an overflowing percolation pond, which has been intermittently leaking into the same mangroves since April 7, inspectors said.
The city has started working with the DEP to make the fixes, stopping the most serious discharge. Engineers have been hired to design a new plant, said Mayor Sammy Hamilton Jr.
"We're working on it all," Hamilton said. "It's looking good. We're going to get everything fixed that they want fixed right away. The main thing I want do right now will be to get the money for the new plant. I'll get that through some grants."
DEP in March asked Collier County to consider taking over the plant or to help run it. But commissioners, following the advice of the county manager and attorney, decided against getting involved.
County officials estimated it would take between $30 million and $55 million to bring the wastewater system up to standard. Hamilton said he believes it will cost under $20 million to replace the plant.
"I don't want the county to be involved in this," Hamilton said. "It belongs to the city of the Everglades and I am the mayor. I worked hard to get new water plant, we worked hard to get a new city hall and now we'll get a new wastewater plant."
The DEP has been trying to get Everglades City, which sits just outside the border of the national park, to replace its treatment plant for years. It sued the city in November, saying officials failed to make 12 of the 24 necessary repairs and replacements they agreed to make in a past lawsuit over the failing plant. The city could face crippling fines, up to $1,000 for each day it didn't meet a series of deadlines dating back to 2013 for replacing pipes and parts, and designing plans for a complete replacement of the treatment plant itself. The city also operated the treatment plant without a permit from July 5 to March 7, a violation that carries up to a $10,000-a-day fine, according to the lawsuit.
Inspectors found the city pumping between 100 to 200 gallons a minute of liquid sewage into the mangroves on March 21 and 22. The discharge continued until March 25, said DEP spokeswoman Jessica Boyd. The discharge never threated the health of the 400 or so residents in Everglades City, Boyd said.
"Sampling of the discharged water revealed bacteria levels to be within state standards and did not pose a health threat," she said.
When improperly treated wastewater flows into surface water it can cause a host of water quality and environmental problems.
The waste carries nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, causing algae blooms and lowering oxygen levels, which can lead to fish kills and other types of die-off, said Jennifer Hecker of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
"When bacteria levels get high enough it can make it unsafe to harvest shellfish or go swimming," Hecker said. "It's not a good idea to allow more nutrients and this type of pollution to enter into our waterways. It has to be addressed and controlled immediately and we commend the DEP for taking action."
The city has been working with the DEP to make needed repairs for several weeks, Hamilton said.
The department has committed to give the city more than $600,000 to help plan and design the new plant.