For Immediate Release: Tuesday, May 26, 2020
Contact: Jerry Phillips (850) 877-8097; Kirsten Stade email@example.com
Spills Risk COVID Exposure Yet No Abatement or Enforcement
Tallahassee — During the past five years, Orlando’s major wastewater treatment facility has been responsible for nearly 200 sewage overflows spewing 3.4 million gallons into both local surface waters and wetlands, but also onto city streets, according to a review of records by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In addition to spills of raw untreated sewage, the facility routinely violates its treatment permit limits, discharging large amounts of excess pollutants that feed the algal blooms plaguing Florida’s waters.
Besides the damage to the environment, the sewage spills pose a human health risk as mounting evidence shows that the COVID-19 virus persists in human waste. These risks are magnified by tropical systems, including hurricanes, which have become more intense with climate change.
“In spite of all of these major sewage spills, the state has not taken a single enforcement action,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former enforcement attorney with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), noting that since June 2019, DEP has filed 18 memos waiving enforcement for overflows committed by this facility. “Indeed, since Governor DeSantis took office, his DEP, in what appears to be a statewide practice, has been studiously papering the facility’s file with nonenforcement memos.”
The Orlando wastewater treatment facility PEER examined is operated by the Orange County Utilities Divison. Every state inspection since March 2015 found the quality of treated effluent was significantly non-compliant, with exceedances in Total Phosphorus and Total Nitrogen (nutrients that contribute to algal blooms) and Fecal Coliform (bacteria found in feces).
Despite multiple permit violations, DEP took no action to implement ordered improvements or to assess civil penalties. Instead, DEP renewed the permit on March 24, 2020, extending it to March 23, 2025 and increasing its capacity from 19.0 to 24.0 gallons per day (MGD).
The PEER report makes several recommendations, including –
- Identifying and fixing the sources of sewage overflows;
- Amending the permit to require correction of all violations; and
- Assessing penalties for all ongoing violations and increasing frequency of inspections.
“The public record shows this facility is in a state of perpetual noncompliance,” Phillips added, pointing out that state legislation on algal blooms adopted this spring leaves much of the water discharge monitoring on a voluntary, and not a mandatory, basis. “When it comes to pollution enforcement, Florida’s DEP has been MIA – and that has to change.”