The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has agreed to stay its lawsuit against Everglades City for 120 days over chronic sewage problems at the city's treatment plant, in a sign the two sides could soon reach a settlement.
Everglades City has hired a vendor, Veolia Environmental Services, to operate its plant after years of faulty maintenance, lapsed permits and missed deadlines caused the DEP to file suit, seeking potentially crippling fines.
The lawsuit sparked a recall petition against longtime Mayor Sammy Hamilton Jr., who resigned before the petition was submitted to the supervisor of elections.
With an experienced operator now in charge of the plant, lawyers with the DEP told a judge that they are hopeful they can come to terms with the city on both short- and long-term fixes to the plant.
"It is a positive step toward bringing the water and sewer plants into compliance," they wrote in a motion to stop litigation against the city for 120 days.
The DEP allowed Everglades City to hook six new homes up to the water and wastewater system, something the city has been barred from doing for months.
"We're just doing what we're supposed to do," said Mayor Howie Grimm. "We're doing regular maintenance and making sure things work properly.
"Basically, this company is making sure we're operating what we have to its fullest potential," Grimm said.
"We still need a new plant, but that will come."
DEP inspectors caught the city's wastewater treatment plant pumping raw sewage into nearby mangroves in 2015.
The city also had failed to complete dozens of needed temporary repairs to the plant, as well as move forward with a complete reconstruction of it under deadlines outlined in the settlement of a prior lawsuit with the DEP.
In February, the DEP asked the judge to force the city to give up control of both its wastewater treatment plant and drinking water plant after inspectors found a critical pump at the city's drinking water facility was leaking and in need of repairs while the plant's only backup was broken and unusable.
Had the leaking pump stopped working, water would have been shut off to the 955 homes and businesses connected to the utility, the DEP warned.
Both pumps since have been replaced by the city.
Collier County has agreed to help the city administratively to run the plant and seek grant money to pay for repairs and eventually a complete reconstruction of the plant.
The county also has agreed to step in to run the plant in the case of an emergency or if Veolia fails to perform.