Lake O’s Gateway City Spewing Illegal Wastewater
Clewiston Phosphorus and Other Pollution Violations Go Unpunished and Unabated
Tallahassee — A major polluter in the Lake Okeechobee basin has routinely violated its discharge permit limits for years, according to a federal enforcement complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The types of pollutants at issue, principally phosphorus and other nutrients, flowing into and then out of Lake Okeechobee are the same pollutants that are the major drivers of Florida’s current water crisis of record red tides and blue-green algal blooms.
The complaint concerns the municipal wastewater plant for the City of Clewiston, in Hendry County. That facility has a state permit to discharge nearly 1.5 million gallons per day of contaminated effluent into Sugarland Drainage District Canal Number 3, a waterbody that is supposed to be clean enough for fish consumption, water recreation, and healthy, well-balanced wildlife populations. But Clewiston has a long history of seriously exceeding those permit limits:
- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists the site as being in noncompliance for each of the past 12 quarters. Most of the violations are for excess effluents. According to the EPA’s Effluent Exceedances Report, Clewiston has had at least 7,300 days with such exceedances during that period, many for total phosphorus limits;
- These flow exceedances may be underestimates because much of Clewiston’s equipment for measuring flow, sampling, and chlorination was not properly calibrated; and
- For much of 2016, the facility operated without a valid permit at all.
“Unfortunately, while noncompliance at Clewiston is extreme it is not atypical in Florida,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) enforcement attorney, noting that discharge reports show Clewiston’s daily wastewater flow averaged a quarter of a million gallons per day above permit limits. “If you multiply Clewiston flow violations by fifty across other noncompliant major dischargers, outbreaks of toxic tides and algal blooms should be no surprise.”
State records also show that the facility had been found to be out of compliance in each of the last three inspections. In two of those inspections the facility was deemed to be in significant non-compliance. Yet, Florida DEP took no enforcement in response to the multiple permit violations found in the 2014, 2015, and 2016 inspections. Instead, the DEP granted extensions but has not inspected the facility since 2016.
Clewiston’s latest DEP permit also removed the limit on mercury discharges, despite prior violations for exceeding effluent limits for mercury, as well as for dissolved oxygen and fecal coliform violations.
“Our complaint asks for federal intervention to address the mounting risk to human health,” Phillips added, pointing out that the federal Clean Water Act is supposed to set minimum standards for the entire country but that requires federal oversight. “Despite a national guarantee of clean water for all Americans, water pollution control in Florida is falling criminally short of that guarantee.”