Responding to the city of Apalachicola’s continued failure to prevent discharges in violation of Federal Clean Water Act standards from its wastewater treatment facility, Apalachicola Bay and River Keeper, Inc. (ABARK) has filed a lawsuit against the city to obtain elimination of the pollution. ABARK is represented by Earthjustice in the federal lawsuit, brought under the Clean Water Act. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has previously acknowledged serious problems with the plant and with discharge of pollutants into tributaries that flow into Apalachicola Bay. Despite recent installation of a new waste treatment plant and despite ongoing threats to the health of Apalachicola Bay, the Florida DEP and the city of Apalachicola have failed to curb discharges and have given local citizens little recourse but legal action to clean up this chronic cause for problems in the Bay.
“We have to go to court to get the wastewater out of Apalachicola Bay. The Bay is too imperiled and too important to us and our families,” said David McLain, executive director of ABARK.
“Proposed Florida DEP removal of the Apalachicola river and bay from the impaired waters list to be sent to EPA flies in the face of reality: Where were the state auditors from DEP when 1400 oystermen and their families could not harvest their crop for two-and-a-half months last fall? What would they have told the young children of those families, since there would be no Thanksgiving turkey and no Christmas? The threats to the Apalachicola system are many and varied — Atlanta’s growth continues to threaten and reduce fresh water flows; contamination upstream continues; wetlands habitat continues to fall to destructive dredging for an impossible navigation channel; uncontrolled growth threatens to outstrip local infrastructure; and other wastewater treatment plants within the basin are problematic. Yet the river and bay are not sufficiently impaired to be able to apply for federal grants to fix these current problems and prepare for the future. What’s wrong with this picture?”
The lawsuit comes on the heels of a decision by the state Department of Environmental Protection to take Apalachicola Bay off the list of polluted waters in Florida. That decision rankled local groups, who pointed out that the bay had gotten more polluted rather than less polluted in recent years. “You don’t clean up waterways by changing the rules so that you can call them clean. You clean waterways by following the law and keeping the pollution out,” said David Guest of Earthjustice.
Apalachicola obtained its first Clean Water Act permit for its sewage treatment plant roughly 15 years ago. However, the plant was plagued with problems from the beginning. Shortly after its first permit was issued, the government cited the city for permit violations and had to begin issuing a series of consent orders to the city that temporarily allowed continued, sub-standard operation. ABARK has repeatedly threatened legal action in an attempt to stop ongoing, point-source pollution and force the implementation of Clean Water Act standards, but the city of Apalachicola continues to fail to bring its wastewater treatment plant into compliance.
“The health and sustained productivity of our river and bay demand a more aggressive approach to preventing pollution,” said Andy Smith, president of ABARK. “The people who work and recreate on the river and bay and future generations deserve to have the resources protected for their use and enjoyment. The city and Florida DEP have the means to achieve this goal and need to make the protection of our surface waters a priority, not just a good idea.”
The city has constructed and begun operation of a new wastewater treatment plant, replaced collection lines, and recently selected a contractor to operate the facility. In its current state, however, the facility has yet to come into compliance with the Clean Water Act. Though one option to solve the problem, for which state and federal funding has been approved, involves disposing of waste through a land application system, the city has yet to purchase land for this use. The fact that the funding for that procurement expires in October had much to do with the timing of ABARK’s suit. According to Earthjustice, Florida DEP was entertaining the idea of allowing a further weakening of the limits on pollutants from the plant and yet another extension of the deadline for the city to come into compliance.
“ABARK is not seeking a monetary judgment,” said McLain. “As soon as the city can demonstrate that their waste water going into our river and bay are in compliance with federal Clean Water Act standards or can demonstrate that they are going to an upland land application system, this suit goes away.”