WINTER SPRINGS, Fla. – The Florida Department of Environmental Protection discovered 24 “possible violations” after a massive fish kill in January at a Winter Springs pond that left the shoreline littered with hundreds of rotting fish carcasses.
At the time, the then-mayor of Winter Springs blamed a faulty valve inside an old pipe under the old City golf course that leaked thousands of gallons of reclaimed water into the pond. The Mayor said no one currently at the wastewater facilities knew about the pipe.
But the FL DEP investigation discovered much more than a broken pipe.
Among the notes from the DEP warning letter:
- Treatment plant flows had bypassed the filtration and disinfection systems. These flows were discharged to the land application disposal systems.
- Bypassed flows were not monitored as required in the current permit.
- Several abnormal events at this facility were reported late or not reported to the Department as required in the current permit.
- Numerous reporting/transcription errors were noted throughout the Discharge Monitoring Report (DMR) review period.
In an email to News 6, Winter Springs City Manager Shawn Boyle blamed the age of the wastewater treatment facilities.
“Our wastewater treatment plants are 50 years old but while design is underway on two new plants, we have to keep these going,” Boyle wrote. “Parts and pipes have broken, valves have failed and we keep working on the plants hoping to avoid spills, odors and nuisance to neighbors. When something breaks, we work to fix it, clean it and make it right. We will continue to do that until our new plants are built.”
In 2019, Winter Springs Commissioners hired Veolia Water, one of the world’s largest utilities, to operate the City’s water treatment facilities.
Veolia was sued by the Michigan Attorney General, who alleged fraud and negligence in the Flint water lead poisoning crisis.
Jesse Phillips, Vice President of the Winter Springs Community Association, said he has long been skeptical and critical of the Commissioners’ decision to contract with Veolia.
“If you are competent and able to do what you’re professionally obligated to do, this seems to be basic stuff,” Phillips said. “We’re talking about documenting stuff, we’re talking about understanding the system that we’re running. One of the things that came out around the time of the fish kill is that the valve that was broken no one even knew existed. How do you operate a plant that you don’t even bother to get the schematics for to find them to understand what you’re documenting?”
Phillips didn’t accept the city manager’s explanation.
“Why am I asked to believe that for 48 years this was fine under different management, but literally the day that this group took over all of these problems surfaced?” Phillips said. “That’s a leap of faith that I’m not willing to take and believe that line of thinking.”
Phillips claimed to have collected 400 signatures for a petition to “fire” Veolia on www.onewintersprings.com/water.
“It is a management problem and it’s something that ultimately the city manager and city council has to answer for because they’re the folks that brought this group in against the warnings and against the protest of those of us who actually did our research before they were brought in.”
Phillips said he’s concerned about the quality of water in the City and taxpayers picking up the tab if the DEP fines the city for the “potential violations.”
News 6 asked both City Manager Shawn Boyle and the new Winter Springs Mayor Kevin McCann about Phillips’ concerns and how they feel about Veolia.
Boyle said the plant workers who discovered the reclaimed water leak under the former golf course should be considered heroes rather than villains. Boyle pointed out that the valve malfunction occurred over a holiday weekend in December and said the workers spent their entire holiday weekend hunting down and then repairing the leak.
News 6 also sent Phillips’ concerns and his petition directly to Veolia. He provided this response:
“This has been a complicated but unavoidable situation. Here is a summary of what happened.
“The City of Winter Springs’ west wastewater treatment plant is a two-tank complex that is more than 50 years old. The plant has been in need of significant repairs and improvements in order to extend its useful life and permit a bridge to the time when a new plant can be funded and built. We knew that the work would be difficult, since half the plant would be taken offline while still treating the continuous flow of wastewater into the facility. But the work had to be done.
“Construction on repairs and improvements began in November. Unfortunately, problems surfaced immediately, including a long series of equipment and component failures. Much of it is unlike anything that experienced professionals have ever seen. For the last several months, the team has worked around the clock to keep the plant functioning. Despite the challenges, the plant is now functioning properly and, in fact, demonstrating improved performance.
“The City is working closely with the team at the plant and the Department of Environmental Protection to review the situation, understand what went wrong and plan for the next phase of construction.”