By Rachel Brown Hackney
About that FDEP folder…
The order of files for the Lido Renourishment Project in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s online folder ended up sparking some County Commission questions about just how much power the Siesta Key Association has. During the Oct. 6 SKA meeting, Second Vice President Catherine Luckner explained the curious turn of events.
When the County Commission sent correspondence to FDEP in late August about concerns regarding a proposed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) staging area in the county’s Ted Sperling Park, the material that showed up in the Lido folder included a document the SKA had provided to the county board. With yellow highlights, that document pointed to sections of the county’s Comprehensive Plan that are applicable to the project. The SKA wanted to be sure the board members considered those facts when deliberating about how much say they should have about the renourishment plans.
“I was thrilled,” Luckner said during the SKA meeting. When commissioners started asking how that material ended up linked to their letter, county staff investigated.
In a Sept. 14 report to the County Commission, Matt Osterhoudt, interim director of the county’s Planning and Development Services Department, wrote, “FDEP staff explained they posted the document simply because they received it as public comment. All such public comments are posted to the site.”
The report points out, “FDEP staff also confirmed their determination of completeness or issuance/denial of the permit must be consistent with state permitting requirements, and not on inapplicable public comments.” Furthermore, Osterhoudt explained in the memo that the Comprehensive Plan applies to development proposals through implementation of county ordinances. The Code of Ordinances’ provisions relating to coastal systems, he continued, are either not applicable to incorporated areas or they exempt municipal, state and federal projects.
He added that staff had reviewed permitting records “and found no instances of County permits for projects by municipal, state, or federal government agencies for beach renourishment, dredging, and beach hardening projects within the incorporated area.”
Alerts on environmental issues
On the heels of an executive order Gov. Rick Scott issued in late September, Sarasota County staff may use its CodeRed system as one means of notifying residents of any future discharges of partly treated wastewater into bodies of water, David A. Cash, the county’s water/wastewater division manager, told SNL.
Regardless of the method it ends up employing, Cash added in an email, “[A]ffected citizens and local media outlets will be notified if there are any future occurrences.”
CodeRed is the emergency notification system the county uses for severe weather alerts, for example, and “boil water” notices. Any member of the public may sign up for it through the county’s website. The link is listed at the bottom of the homepage — www.scgov.net — under Emergency Services.
The issue arose during the Oct. 6 SKA meeting, when Second Vice President Catherine Luckner discussed the discharge of 3.3 million gallons of partially treated wastewater into the Grand Canal from the Siesta treatment plant. The release began on Aug. 31 and ceased on Sept. 5, according to reports the county filed with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). Cash explained to SNL in September that staff was worried that raw sewage would spill over tanks in the plant as a result of the heavy rainfall associated with then-Tropical Storm Hermine.
As Luckner noted during the SKA meeting, word spread on the island after residents noticed “No Swimming” signs posted at the Grand Canal after the discharge, as required by the Florida Department of Health.
No formal public announcement was made, Luckner pointed out, because “it wasn’t [county staff members’] protocol to do that.”
However, the SKA received five emails from people “who really had some very good points” about the need for public notice of such events, even though the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) allows such discharges in the type of situation the wastewater treatment plant staff was facing during Hermine.
A couple of residents, especially, talked of how “this doesn’t seem right,” she added, given the number of people who boat, kayak and use jet skis in the Grand Canal.
Luckner recognized Jeanne Excurra and Lorie Tiernay, who were in the audience, for their efforts to help protect their neighbors and other members of the public.
Subsequent to the Siesta incident, Luckner continued, Mosaic reported to the state that about 215 million gallons of acidic water and an unknown amount of gypsum — a fertilizer byproduct with low levels of radiation — leaked into the Floridan Aquifer at its Mulberry plant through a sinkhole. Moreover, the City of St. Petersburg spilled millions of gallons of raw sewage into Tampa Bay — another incident linked to Hermine’s rain.
In response to those events, Scott issued an executive order on Sept. 26, calling for FDEP Secretary Jon Steverson “to issue an emergency rule that establishes new requirements for public notification of pollution incidents to take effect immediately,” Scott’s office announced. “This emergency rule will ensure the public, local governments and DEP are notified within 24 hours by all responsible parties following a pollution incident,” a press release pointed out.
Scott also ordered that within 48 hours, “DEP, local governments and the general public must be notified of any potential risks to public health, safety or welfare and to surrounding areas by any and all responsible parties …”
Scott added that he will propose a bill during the 2017 Florida Legislature’s session to make certain the public is kept informed of incidents that “may cause a threat to public health and to Florida’s air and water resources.” That emergency rule is in effect for 90 days, the news release noted. “So there will be no way nobody will be surprised,” Luckner explained during the SKA meeting.
However, since Scott did not say how the notice should be provided, she continued, the effort to craft protocols for that is underway statewide. The executive order, she added, “was actually to stimulate problem solving.”
In the meantime, Luckner said, Tony Romanus, president of the Siesta Isles Association — which represents the neighborhood where the aging wastewater plant is located — has offered to send out an email blast to residents and to notify the SKA if any incidents occur at that plant in the future.
Some residents were concerned that the recent proliferation of red tide off Siesta Key could have been caused by the discharge of the partly treated sewage into the Grand Canal, Luckner pointed out, but red tide already was present in the Gulf of Mexico at that time. The heavy rains the area has experienced in recent weeks washes anything on land into the water, she noted, adding that it did not seem feasible that the sewage discharge would have had a significant impact. “All I can say is we’ve had a heck of a time.”
Luckner also reminded the audience that the Siesta wastewater plant is an aged facility — more than 40 years old, county staff has explained. “Let’s all keep alert.”
November will be a busy month for the Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce, Executive Director Ann Frescura told members of the SKA and the Siesta Key Village Association (SKVA) during their October meetings. First, the Chamber will host the annual Sandfest on Friday, Nov. 4, from 6 to 10 p.m. at the pavilion in the Siesta Public Beach Park. The theme, she said, will be Flashback to the ’80s. “We encourage festive attire,” she told the SKA members.
“Take your white suits out of the attic,” Syd Krawczyk of Concept Digital Media responded laughingly at the SKVA meeting when she made the announcement, alluding to disco-era attire. The cost is $25 per member and $35 for those who do not belong to the Chamber, Frescura said. Chamber members may reserve tables for 10 for $250.
For more information, check out the chamber website — siestakeychamber.com — or call 349-3800.
Close on the heels of Sandfest, the Crystal Classic International Sand Sculpting Festival will be held on Siesta Public Beach Nov. 11-15. “I can’t wait,” she said of that event when addressing the SKA members. “This’ll be my first time.” Frescura joined the Chamber in January.