City of Largo, Fl. Sued for Violations of Clean Water Act by Environmental Groups

Tampa Bay Waterkeeper, Our Children’s Earth Foundation, and Suncoast Waterkeeper filed a civil suit under the citizen’s enforcement provision of the Clean Water Act (CWA) against the City of Largo, Fl., on July 28. The complaint, filed in the Middle District of Florida, alleged that Largo has and is illegally discharging various pollutants into Tampa Bay and its tributaries.

Because it is a citizen-driven enforcement action, the plaintiffs first sent a requisite notice letter to the City of Largo, the Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the EPA’s Administrator, informing them of the violations and their intent to sue. After sixty-days passed without a response from Largo, and without indication from the EPA or Florida that it would pursue the matter, the plaintiffs, three non-profit environmental rights and advocacy groups, commenced the instant action.

The plaintiffs alleged that they have been and continue to be harmed by Largo’s violations because they impair “plaintiffs’ members’ use and enjoyment” of recreational waterways by discharging pathogens, excessive nutrients, and various toxic chemicals in them. This leads “members to have well-founded fears” that water contact recreation will cause them harm. The plaintiffs argue that the violations negatively impact fishing and wildlife viewing, among other activities, due to diminished catch and sickened animals. The plaintiffs seek declaratory and injunctive relief and assessment of civil penalties for non-compliance beginning July 2015.

Their first cause of action relates to effluent violations from surface water released at location D-001 in violation of Largo’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. Location D-001 is in Feather Sound, a tributary of Old Tampa Bay. The plaintiffs charge Largo with deposition of the following CWA pollutants in excess of its NPDES Permit: nitrogen, dichlorobromomethane, and fecal coliform, based on water quality test results submitted as an exhibit.

The plaintiffs charged Largo with a combined total of 1,650 days of violations, for the aforementioned pollutants. This has resulted in “degrade[d] water quality and harm [to] aquatic life.” For example, the plaintiffs contend that Largo’s “persistent NPDES Permit exceedances for TN [total nitrogen] has likely been a major contributor to persistent HABs [harmful algal blooms]” in Old Tampa Bay.

The plaintiffs next challenged Largo’s unpermitted discharges in violation of the CWA, in particular, the release of sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) from its wastewater treatment facility, wastewater collection and treatment system, and its separate storm sewer system (MS4) on at least 252 separate occasions since July 28, 2015. SSOs, the plaintiffs contend, harm receiving waters and “pose a serious risk to fisheries, wildlife habitat, and human health,” because they contain “human waste, viruses, protozoa, mold spores and bacteria… [they] also contain chemicals that cause cancer or reproductive toxicity in humans and wildlife.”

In their third cause of action, the environmental groups claimed that Largo has violated its MS4 permit and the CWA by discharging SSOs from its MS4 into statutorily protected waterways. The MS4 permit “requires the City to prohibit and prevent the introduction of non-stormwater,” i.e., raw sewage, into the MS4 system, which Largo has allegedly failed to do.

Finally, and related to their first cause of action, the plaintiffs averred that Largo failed to properly maintain and operate its publicly owned treatment works in violation of its NPDES permit. Specifically, the plaintiffs cite failures, including, “neglect and mismanagement of its [wastewater treatment facility] and all related appurtenances.” They contend that sewage spills have resulted from shoddy oversight and infrastructure management, like sewer line blockages, defects, broken sewer lines, and pump station equipment failures. Because the problems have not yet been rectified, the plaintiffs alleged that all violations are continuous and ongoing.

The plaintiffs are represented by Justin Bloom Attorney At Law, PA, and Van Ness Feldman, LLP.