DEP fines GRU $7,500 for sewage spill, but cost likely to be far greater


Workers with GRU spray water onto SW 2nd Ave from a UF golf course maintenance area near SW 34th Street after a sewage spill in the area in Gainesville, Saturday July 27, 2013. The leak in a sewage line was compounded with a malfunction of a valve that caused a large spill of sewage that began Friday morning and was not sealed up until early Saturday evening. The water was to help with washing the sewage down the local creeks.

Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 at 5:36 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 at 5:36 p.m.

July’s approximately 900,000-gallon sewage spill — and a smaller spill in August — will mean a $7,500 state fine for Gainesville Regional Utilities.

But utility officials say the full cost from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection enforcement action will be far more significant than that fine and $250 in related administrative costs.

A proposed DEP consent order would require GRU to prepare and implement a plan to test the working order of all valves in its sewage collection system. Tony Cunningham, a senior environmental engineer at GRU, said that means more than 500 valves and either hiring additional staff or contracting with an outside firm. Cunningham said at this point, without the plan in place, the rough cost estimate of that valve testing is $230,000 annually.

That cost projection does not include any repair, construction or maintenance work done in response to those tests, Cunningham said.

As for the moderate $7,500 fine, the DEP says it is in line with current state law. Florida Statute 412 says a sewage spill carries a fine of $5,000 and includes no language for increasing the size of the fine for larger spills.

The GRU consent order, which is not yet final, includes a $5,000 fine for the July spill and a $5,000 fine for a smaller 58,000-gallon spill from a broken force main reported on Aug. 13.

The state then reduced the combined fine from $10,000 to $7,500 because GRU showed a “good faith effort” to respond to the spill, DEP spokeswoman Mara Burger said in an email Tuesday.

Burger wrote that GRU “mobilized every resource available including all wastewater staff and tankers as well as all contract tankers in Gainesville in order to capture flow diverted away from the break.”

Instead of paying the fine, GRU also has the option of funding an in-kind project that is deemed an environmental enhancement or a capital upgrade to its sewage collection system. That project has to cost 1 times the fine — or at least $11,250. Cunningham said the utility expects to choose the option of the in-kind project.

The July sewage spill started with a broken 36-inch force main along Southwest 34th Street. Eventually, about 900,000 gallons flowed into Hogtown and Possum creeks. That included sewage the utility discharged in an effort to avoid a backup into homes and businesses.

A joint failure caused the leak, which was small at first. But a valve broke during the repair, causing the larger leak and requiring the discharge of wastewater into the creeks to ensure toilets would not back up.

In the aftermath, dozens of homes in a wooded area near Haile Sink that have wells for drinking water were under boil-water notices for several days as testing for fecal coliform continued.

GRU staff is scheduled to present the terms of the proposed consent order to the City Commission at Thursday’s meeting.

Burger said the DEP and GRU are in talks to change the timelines contained in the current draft of the consent order. Those timelines cover issues such as the time allowed for GRU to pay a fine or select an in-kind project and to prepare the required valve testing plan.

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