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Sewage spills prompt Joe Gruters to ‘bring hammer down’ on local governments

Local governments fear such penalties will actually hinder repair abilities.

Sen. Joe Gruters’ legislation increasing sewage spill fines by a minimum of 50% is ready for a floor vote in the Florida Senate.

“Everybody in Florida is part of the problem, but government is one of the worst polluters overall,” Gruters said. “Now we’re coming down with the hammer.”

The Sarasota Republican has previously pushed for increasing fines, but this Session enjoys the support of Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Gruters has also found a receptive audience in the Florida Legislature for aggressively increasing fines. His bill (SB 1450) has advanced through three Senate committees and suffered only one ‘nay’ vote.

But the bill has many municipal officials concerned about the effects, including some within Sarasota.

“For what it’s worth, I don’t think more fines, bureaucratic reporting requirements, etc. are the answer,” said Bill Riebe, utilities director for the City of Sarasota.

The most prominent city in Gruters’s home district has suffered plenty of woes through the years with sewage spills. The city last summer had a split main release 17,100 gallons of wastewater released, then a month later had 300 gallons of raw sewage spill in a neighborhood.

The county sewer system has suffered worse spills this year, with more than 22,000 gallons dumped in north Sarasota last December, months after 36,000 gallons spilled into a Siesta Key canal.

Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin said he hasn’t looked closely at the fee schedule proposed in Gruters’ bill, but he’s afraid fines the Senator has proposed before were so severe they would do more harm than good.

“We have one of the best advanced wastewater treatment plants in the state (and we are upgrading) but the real key is adequate funding to replace old underground pipes, build modern treatment plants statewide, equip lift stations with back up generators, with redundancy in place where warranted,” Barwin said.

“Penalties for malfeasance or nonfeasance are appropriate but punishing rate payers to heavily, for aging pipe breaks, takes resources away from doing the work that needs to be done.”

Certainly, there are communities with bigger problems. Debate over Gruters’ legislation comes as Fort Lauderdale suffers a series of breaks. Just last week, a break in a sewer line had crews scrambling to protect George English Park. That incident proved particularly embarrassing as the city had just been slapped with a $1.8 million fine. The city over the last three months has seen some 220 million gallons of raw sewage spilled. But officials have estimated they need to conduct $1.3 billion in repairs.

The City of Tampa has $3 billion worth of repairs in the works and has already put a plan in place to double rates over six years to pay for that.

And Sarasota has included major improvements in its master plans for the city.

Gruters said he’s happy when cities act proactively but too often government responds only when problems reach crisis levels. Ideally, his proposed fines won’t ever be levied because cities and counties will act as good stewards of the environment.

“Florida is not Florida without its abundant natural waterways,” Gruters said.

“Water is at the heart of the state’s terrific quality of life, and what makes tourism the backbone of our economy. Given that, it is incumbent on us to aggressively tackle all pollution sources, private and public, to clean up our environment and mitigate future red tide blooms.”

He stresses that his bill will ramp up fines on all sewage spills, not just those for government-owned utilities.

And most notably, he leaves room for cities to work with the Department of Environmental Protection on alternatives to cash fines.

But the truth, Gruters says, is Florida has seen too many nutrients poured in its waterways by sewage spills. His office figures a spill takes place in Florida every three hours, and the state suffered 3 billion gallons of raw sewage spills over the last decade.

The Fort Lauderdale sewage alone could fill 11 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

That demands attention, he said.

“This law holds governments who dump raw sewage into our waterways accountable with fines, but also gives them an option out if they fix their pollution problems,” he said.

“Sarasota County residents and all Floridians deserve the strongest reasonable protections.”

Written By

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at jacobogles@hotmail.com.

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