Residents reporting ‘vast improvement’ in conditions around Siesta Wastewater Treatment Plant

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By Rachel Brown Hackney

          Almost exactly four weeks after numerous Siesta Key residents aired their anger about noxious odors at the Siesta Key Wastewater Treatment Plant, a Siesta Isles spokeswoman told SNL that she was happy to report the situation was much improved.

“Everybody’s overwhelmed,” Lorie Tiernay said during a May 4 telephone interview. “I don’t think we even realized how bad it was [beforehand].”

Aerial of Siesta Key Water Water Treatment Plant
Aerial of Siesta Key Water Water Treatment Plant
During the April 7 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting, Tiernay was among those who peppered David Cash, manager of the county’s Water/Wastewater Division, not only about the persistent odor that was driving residents inside and keeping them there, but also about the fact that county staff had worked with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to delay the decommissioning of the wastewater plant at least another year. Although a revised consent order FDEP and county staff signed late this winter calls for the closing of the plant in June 2018, Gregory S. Rouse, the county’s engineering design manager overseeing the transformation of the plant to a master pump station, told SKA members on April 7 that staff is working toward decommissioning the Siesta facility in December 2017.

Tiernay and her husband decided not to pursue a formal petition through FDEP to seek the closing in December 2016, which was the schedule prior to the department’s approval of the revised consent order. FDEP sent the couple a copy of an order dismissing the request they made in April. Although, the document gave them the ability to try again in a more formal manner, Jess Boyd, a spokeswoman for FDEP, told SNL that the 30-day period for Tiernay and Joe Romano to file the petition expired at 5 p.m. on May 12. “The department has not received an amended petition from the Romanos regarding [the Siesta Wastewater Treatment Plant],” Boyd wrote in a May 13 email.

Nonetheless, Tiernay told SNL early this month, “We do feel very passionate that the [decommissioning] timeline can be tightened up.” The age of the Siesta facility is a concern, she pointed out, “and everybody will agree that it is not operating at maximum capacity.”

During the April 7 SKA meeting, Cash noted that the plant is more than 40 years old.

The FDEP order said the letter Tiernay and Romano sent the department in April did not contain all of the information required by a rule in the state’s Administrative Code governing petitions in such matters. Furthermore, the order explained, they “have not demonstrated standing to challenge the Department’s decision” to issue the revised consent order. To prove such standing, the order said, a petition must allege that the “Petitioner’s substantial environmental interest are affected” by the revised consent order. Such allegations, it continued, must show that they are in immediate danger of suffering injury and that the injury “is of a type or nature which [an] administrative proceeding is designed to protect.”

County staff continuing to work on the issue

In the meantime, county staff is continuing to work on equipment at the Siesta Wastewater Treatment Plant, including replacing parts on two “scrubber” units in an effort to mediate the odor problems, Cash told SNL in a May 3 telephone interview.

Additionally, he said, staff was awaiting a memo from an engineer who undertook a review of the operations. As soon as he received it, Cash said, staff immediately would address whatever issues it raised.

That review primarily was to determine what the source of the odor problem has been, Cash continued.

In response to a question SKA President Michael Shay raised informally with SNL, Cash said county trucks do haul all the solids away from the plant. Sludge is pumped into trucks and then removed on Tuesdays and Fridays, he explained. “We don’t believe that that’s causing significant odors,” he added. Still, that is a possibility that the engineer’s review is to have focused on as well, he said.

Asked if the county’s Contact Center has been registering a lot of calls about the plant, Cash told SNL the latest information he had indicated none had come in, and he personally had not received any communications from anyone other than Tiernay and one other resident, whose email she had forwarded to him.

During the April 7 SKA meeting, Second Vice President Catherine Luckner reported that County Commission Chair Al Maio had suggested that anyone with complaints call the Contact Center at 861-5000, because those calls are recorded and staff makes sure they reach the appropriate persons in county government.

“So far, I would say that the county has done what it said it would do,” Tiernay told SNL in early May. “David Cash has been in contact with me and he has been diligent,” she added. Still, she pointed out, “We had to get a little more aggressive” to spur the action.

Before county staff began responding to the complaints, she continued, “we literally could not go outside.” For residents on Commonwealth Drive, especially, Tiernay said, the change is a “vast — I mean vast — improvement.”

She told SNL, “If this is any indication of how they are going to treat the decommissioning [of the plant], I have to say I’m pretty optimistic.”

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