For the past few months, there have been recurring problems at Apopka's 26-year-old wastewater treatment facility, and now the State of Florida is getting involved. On December 30th, The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) sent a warning letter to the City of Apopka as a result of inspections at the facility on November 30th and December 1st.
FDEP noted several problems including:
A spill from the treatment plant digester that occurred on November 5th, which was not reported until November 7th (FDEP requires 24 hour notice).
Bypassing of the sand filters and chlorine contact chambers, which allowed partially treated wastewater to enter the sprayfield holding pond.
Diverting 3 to 4 million gallons of water from the sprayfield holding ponds to the public access reuse (PAR) ponds. Valves were manually open allowing water to flow to the PAR ponds.
On multiple occasions the pH meter calibration records for November 2016 showed a greater than 0.2 standard units (SU) difference between the inline pH meter and the portable pH meter.
Solids being present in the clarifier and filter effluent, the chlorine contact chamber, and the final effluent.
Reclaimed water advisory signs not being posted at the Zellwood Station Golf Course and Rock Springs Ridge reclaimed water ponds.
Effluent ponding was observed at sprayfield #5 near monitoring well MWI-5.
In many of the 14 points outlined in the letter, a lack of disclosure by the City to the FDEP was noted.
Jeff Prather, Director of the Central District of the FDEP closes the letter with this warning:
"Violations of Florida Statutes or administrative rules may result in liability for damages and restoration, and the judicial imposition of civil penalties. Please be advised that this Warning Letter is part of an agency investigation, preliminary to agency action."
Robert Sargent, Public Information Officer for the City of Apopka, emailed a response to local media outlets in the form of a statement that highlighted 16 separate "episodes" between the months of September and December of 2016. The statement also points out the age of the current facility, the idea that an upgraded/expanded facility is in the works, and that public safety was never compromised by the episodes. It also took responsibility for its non-compliance with the FDEP and offered a remedy.
In its statement, the City writes:
"After consultations with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and with our engineering consultants, the City of Apopka acknowledges that there have been occasional operating issues with our 26-year-old wastewater treatment plant. From September through December, we experienced 16 separate episodes.
Even as the plant has experienced these episodes, there has been no impact to the public or the City's utility customers. We are working with FDEP, with the Florida Rural Water Association and with two outside engineering companies to pinpoint the cause. The city is committed to operating our aged wastewater facility with the highest regard for employee safety, public health and environmental safeguards. That's why we are breaking ground this month on a $61 million upgrade and expansion of the facility. We also implemented a new standard operating procedure designed to ensure that future non-compliance issues are properly reported to FDEP.
Finally, it should not be forgotten that if the previous administration had followed through with the $32 million expansion they engineered in 2010, it is unlikely Apopka would be in this position today."
Sargent also answered questions posed by The Apopka Voice regarding water safety to make it clear that wastewater and drinking water are two separate issues.
"Operations at the city’s reclaimed treatment facility are completely separate and unrelated to drinking water. Municipal drinking water is a separate utility. The reclaimed facility treats waste water to be used for irrigation – not drinking."
He also explained why the city did not comply with a 24-hour disclosure after the November 5th spill.
"The event happened on a Saturday (November 5th). We worked to clean up the area, and contacted the state first thing Monday morning (November 7th)."
Sargent also said that the City would meet with the FDEP in the next couple of weeks.
Apopka City Commissioners Doug Bankson and Kyle Becker were optimistic the city staff would work with the FDEP and get matters resolved.
Bankson was notified about the letter a short time ago, but looked forward to the upgraded facility taking care of the issue in the long term.
"I have just recently been made aware of the situation and have reviewed the documents and warning letter myself. To my knowledge the city is working diligently to cooperate and rectify all issues through FDEP. Our new wastewater treatment plant upgrade is definitely a step in the right direction and will ultimately rectify the present situations we are struggling with. I will continue to monitor this issue in keeping with my responsibilities as a commissioner."
Becker sees the inspections and warning letter as a call to action.
"I am aware of the letter from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to the city's staff dated December 30, 2016 concerning findings during recent inspections at the city's wastewater treatment facility. It would be premature for me to comment at length on the issue since staff and the FDEP are actively engaged, but I will be closely following developments. From my understanding, this is a warning letter to prompt further action and discussion, and is good to know there are checks and balances in place to catch any discrepancies in the wastewater treatment process. Whatever the outcome of the immediate investigation, we need to ensure the near term and long term strategy is to be proactive about incident management at the facility, and ensure we are doing all things possible to ensure public safety and good standing with the FDEP."
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