Fort Myers council to question manager over $512K pollution penalty

Fort Myers City Council members will take up a proposed $768K repair plan….

Fort Myers council to question manager over $512K pollution penalty 1
Fort Myers council to question manager over $512K pollution penalty 2

Bill Smith
 
| Fort Myers News-Press

Fort Myers City Manager Saeed Kazemi will face questioning by city council members Tuesday about a civil penalty of $512,450 assessed by the state over the city’s failure to fix spills and leaks in the city wastewater treatment system.

The council has two choices: pay the assessment or spend $768,675 on water treatment system upgrades and repairs. A decision is expected at Tuesday’s meeting. 

Kazemi’s tenure as city manager may be at stake as well.

At least three council members, upset at not being kept up to date on the city’s talks with the state environmental agency, are considering a vote to replace Kazemi, who has announced plans to retire in May.

Previously: Mayor says local choice possible for new Fort Myers manager

A majority vote of the seven-member council is required to oust a city manager.

Mayor Kevin Anderson, whose sister died Sunday night, has told council members that he will participate in the meeting.

The council meets at 4:30 p.m. in the council chamber at Fort Myers City Hall. The regular meeting was scheduled for Tuesday because of the Presidents Day holiday.

A  $512,450 civil penalty levied by the state Department of Environmental Protection stems from spills of wastewater, untreated effluent and wastewater spills. In addition, the city was assessed $2,000 for expenses incurred by the state in its investigation.

One option for the city is to accept a state offer to forgo the penalty if it spends one-and-one-half times the penalty amount on improvements and repair. 

For subscribers: State holds Fort Myers responsible for years of water pollution

In 2020: State cracked down after massive Fort Myers sewage spill 

And: No fines or agreement yet on Fort Myers’ biggest-ever sewage spill

In its proposed consent order, the state agency cited several categories of violations with direct environmental impact. 

DEP found that limits for arsenic in local bodies of water exceeded standards nine times between June 2018 and September 2020.

The agency said the city allowed excessive nutrients to enter the water, “contributing to the impairment of the Caloosahatchee River.” 

The Caloosahatchee is considered by the state a Class III waterway “meant to be suitable for recreational use and for the propagation and maintenance of a healthy, well-balanced population of fish and wildlife,” the proposed consent order said. 

The worst spill, in terms of amount discharged, happened on March 16, 2020, when 183,000 gallons leaked into Manuel’s Branch, a Caloosahatchee River tributary. 

The Manuel’s Branch spill was blamed on the city’s failure to properly plug an abandoned section of pipe.

In 2018: Billy’s Creek has been ‘frighteningly’ polluted for at least 15 years

With four votes needed to remove the manager, it is uncertain whether a vote to suspend or fire Kazemi would be taken if at least four members don’t appear to reach  consensus at the meeting to make a change.

Council members are prohibited by state law from discussing city business with each other in private. 

Anderson and Council member Fred Burson have indicated they may support removing Kazemi if they are not satisfied with his response to questions that will be asked at the council meeting. Another member, Liston Bochette, said he believes “dramatic action” is needed.

When Kazmi announced that he intends to retire, Anderson moved to accept the retirement but the motion did not receive a second. 

Prior to Kazemi’s announcement that he would step down, Anderson met with him and said he would move to replace the manager if he did not leave voluntarily. 

Burson said he intends to question Kazemi concerning the leaks and in particular about why the council had not been briefed on the pending enforcement action. 

“The council did not have equal knowledge of what was going on,” Burson said. “That stopped us from making the proper decisions, we could have cleaned this up a long time ago, we would have.”

Council members Johnny Streets and Darla  Bonk did not return phone calls from The News-Press seeking comment. Voice mailboxes of Council members Terolyn Watson and Teresa Watkins Brown were full. Text messages were also sent to the four council members.

Consent orders are designed to compel compliance with standards supervised by a government entity. Typically, the enforcing agency and the entity accused of violating the standards negotiate a settlement. 

Kazemi said in a prepared statement last week that he is recommending the city spend $768,675 to remedy issues raised by the DEP.  The expenditure is equal to 149.4% of the proposed penalty.

The city would be required to be in compliance with the order by Dec. 31, 2025, with a series of interim deadlines.

An 11-point work plan specified in the proposed order has deadlines that come as soon as April 30, when the city must submit sampling for untreated human waste indicators.  That testing will continue every three months until there have been two consecutive quarters with no positive results for untreated human waste.

Among the specific requirements included in the consent order is the development and implementation of a pollutant reduction action plan specifically aimed at elevated bacteria in Manuel’s Branch and the Billy’s Creek watershed.

More: What happened to 1,000 gallons of spilled wastewater in North Fort Myers?

Last March, 183,000 gallons of untreated waste was spilled into Manuel’s Branch, an event termed the city’s worst sewage spill ever. 

The consent decree would also commit the city to reducing discharges of surface water in the river by 60% by the end of 2023.

To be effective, the consent decree must be approved by the city council. The city was given 15 days to provide notice to the DEP by certified mail that it will agree to the system improvement plan.

If the city fails to provide that notice, it could be ordered to make the entire $514,450 payment within 30 days. 

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