Charlotte County Environmental Hazard Sunrise Waterway/Sunshine Lake

Several months ago I went along with three others to look at, take pictures and gather water samples from this area, we used all the criteria necessary to gather uncontaminated samples of water, put them on ice and immediately left that area and went to have the samples tested in North Port, all at no expense to the county of Charlotte. The results were given to the Charlotte County Commissioners. While at the site I personally could smell and see the hazardous water.

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Bill Bigelow along with others in his group has been studying/investigating for nearly a year the four-year Sunrise Waterway/ Sunshine Lake fiasco. Bill has personally have talked to hundreds of people about the conditions/causes/management of the situation since it first appeared in 2009 on the County’s radar screen when residents living on those waters began complaining to certain commissioners and the CC Administrator that serious problems were taking place along the Sunrise Waterway at the Gertrude Avenue bridge crossing directly behind the County’s sewer lift station.

Mr. Bigelow’s team has now completed assembly of an extensive archive of facts/communications from CC residents to commissioners/Administrator/County administrative department heads/County engineers/CCU/ProLime, etc. Without any doubt, we now can assess blame for the continuous inept/out of control nature of the remedial actions taken by the Administration to solve this serious environmental problem, which will now cost taxpayers over $4 million dollars rather than miniscule $15,000 related to a “fix” proposed in 2010 (see discussion of the “fix” below for details), which was never implemented by Administration.

Our group’s pending indictment charges were significantly augmented this past week when the public was advised ProLime, the lake/waterway dredging contractor, submitted to Administration personnel in July 2013 a significant contract “change order” and this request was not brought to the attention of the Commission until just recently. The change order submitted cited the contractor’s need of approval for an addition of $1.2M to the original $2.4M contract. The change order cited: (1) the significant additional extraction amounts of debris still existing in the waters (debris extraction was nowhere addressed in the contract, although evidence clearly shows Administration knew there was significant debris embedded in both waters before the contract was executed); and (2) a near doubling of the estimated volume of algae mat to be extracted over the original County estimates used in establishing the original contract pricing. Some of this discrepancy was apparently due to the existence of sediment being found in the algae mat, which condition also was not addressed by the Administration in arriving at the contract’s estimated extraction “volume”. Additionally, other contract discrepancies/omissions/conflicts badly described the amount of algae-cyanobacteria to be extracted leading to conflicting interpretations by the parties as to the contract terms, including when contract performance would be fulfilled by ProLime.

In 2011, MSBU contracted with Atkins group of Tampa, Florida to evaluate the water quality of these two waterways and, given the major amount of goop being generated, provide remedial actions necessary to identify and correct the problem. Atkins advised the County that the “point” source(s) of the mat growth had to first be determined and recommended several investigative procedures be initiated by the County to identify the source(s). Once such analyses were complete, Atkins would recommend several additional long-term initiatives to eliminate the mat and assure the problem would not recur.

County Administration chose to ignore the Atkins recommendations plus the alerts/warnings from residents on the waters and, as a result, the problem continues to grow rapidly and the dredging operations have become stymied by poor County management of the situation. Such lack of action by the Administration on such recommendations is unacceptable for Atkins stated such water conditions are the worst they had ever witnessed in Florida. The dredging operation has now stopped due to lack of approval for the change order submitted nearly 6 months ago. Many people in the Administration and the Commission have ignored/ wrongfully disputed the content of the Atkins report, but we note Atkins was recently retained by the County (after all existing cyanobacteria mass has been extracted from the two waters) to recommend/initiate actions that will stop recurrence of any such algae growth in the future.

Given many people residing on these two waterways are now reporting health problems associated with the terrible smell and air borne bacteria being disbursed throughout the area, and given that certain commissioners apparently now prefer to pick a fight with ProLime and depict the company as the cause of/fall guy in this still unresolved problem, which it definitely is not, this situation is truly out of control.

Our group senses massive lawsuits against the County forming on the horizon. Based on the evidence at our disposal, the County will probably have no legitimate chance to defend itself in such lawsuits.

It is time for instigation of clear thinking by the Commissioners to solve this problem. The Commission must take over total control of the problem from the Administrator/Administration, for they have proven since early 2010 (when Ray Sandrock was made Administrator) they are incapable of properly/closely managing this massive problem/dredge to a satisfactory solution and conclusion. Given this situation represents a serious/expensive/huge environmental problem, a change in managerial personnel handling the problem is mandatory.

It is time for the County to commence investigative action, as recently recommended by one of our group’s members, which actions mirror the 2011 Atkins recommendations, which were not followed. Listed below are the actions, which must be implemented quickly given the severity of the situation:

  1.  Construct a weir-half round on the 72” drainage pipe (the “fix”) on the Sunrise Waterway near Tamiami Trail, which will meaningfully raise the water level of the waterway from a very low level thereby impeding the expansion of the algae bacterial mat and its contents from leaving the waterway out into the waters entering Alligator Bay and then into Charlotte Harbor (see discussion below covering the “fix”);
  2. Investigate (via TV monitoring) all CCU sewer pipes having proximity to Sunrise Waterway and Sunshine Lake to determine whether the pipes show deterioration/ cracks whereby fecal contaminated rain water during heavy rain storm conditions can escape from the pipes and be conveyed onto the Elkcam Blvd. swales above and then be drained into a storm grate inlet that will discharge the contamination into the Sunrise Waterway behind the sewer lift station. Any structural problems discovered with any of these sewers must be immediately dealt with by sleeving the pipes to eliminate all escape routes for the feces/contaminated water;
  3. Investigate whether the Sewer Lift Station vault on Elkcam Blvd. is defective , which if defective can allow feces or fecal contaminated liquids to leech into the ground and be transmitted into the Sunrise Waterway. To do this, CCU must conduct deep soil tests around the lift station and out to the waterway to rule out existence in the soil of any fecal coliform or other bacteria related to human waste contamination. Immediate repairs must be made to the lift station/vault if damage/cracks, etc. are confirmed;
  4. Investigate whether the cast iron pipes under the slabs and laterals of homes located on the waters, which transmit feces from each residence near the waterway/lake to the sewer system, are damaged and, if so, the homeowner must replace such pipes. Smoke testing conducted in 2011 by CCU on several dozen homes in this area showed that several of the homes tested failed the test meaning their pipes/laterals were cracked and fecal contaminate water was infiltrating soil near the waterway. However, CCU took no action to verify the problems identified in the test were corrected by the homeowner; and
  5. Before the dredge is completed, the County should have a police team dive in the two waters to inspect all areas dredged. This inspection will determine whether ALL debris in such waters has been extracted. Atkins stated any remaining algae mat not extracted (including that attached to submerged debris) will cause the algae to continue to grow.

The Commission should quickly approve the dredging contract change order and amend the many sections of the contract causing confusion between the County and ProLime to make performance under the contract readily determinable/calculable by both parties.

Finally, our group is asking the Commission replace Ray Sandrock, as County Administrator, for the evidence we have assembled overwhelmingly shows he and several of his top lieutenants have ignored citizens’ warnings, alerts and complaints about problems in the two waters since early 2010 (when Sandrock became Administrator) and he/his Administration personnel refused to follow through/implement a simple, cheap (less than a $15,000 cost) “fix” identified in the early part of 2010 to stop proliferation of the bacteria growth. Such fix required a standard permit from the state to initiate. The fix was agreed upon by the then Commissioner Bob Starr and the then Administrator, Roger Baltz, and Mr. Sandrock, Baltz’s successor, was advised of the fix, knew of the permit requirement and was told by Baltz and Starr of why the fix was needed. However, the required permit was never applied for and hence the fix (the same” fix” as discussed in Investigative Recommendation No.1 above) was never implemented, which has caused the remedial cost of taxpayer funding required to escalate to a staggering amount probably exceeding over $4M to solve a problem, which should have been solved in 2010. Unbelievably, we now understand Administration last month applied for the permit they stonewalled for 18 months before.

We note Sarasota County has just fired its County Administrator; the reason cited was the Administrator’s managerial approach was made the county’s employees angry. Wow! The case against Ray Sandrock dismissal makes the Sarasota firing look like child’s play.

In closing, our group is prepared to initiate taxpayer initiatives against Mr. Sandrock if the Commissioners refuse to replace him irrespective of the multitude of factual evidence presented. We intend to submit to the Commissioners an Indictment Document citing the many specific/factual charges worthy of dismissal. Given the strong interest in this initiative, we expect the document will be signed by hundreds of CC taxpayers. If necessary, there will also be additional initiatives taken for we strongly believe county management must be placed under capable hands of a non-bureaucrat with a strong business background and the proven ability to develop and manage an efficient budget, which respects/safeguards taxpayers’ monetary contributions. The current occupant of the CC Administrator position is a bureaucrat who has proven since he has held the office he could care less about what the citizens and taxpayers of this county think or what they want from their Administrator.

My concern is will this contamination remain in the boundaries of Charlotte County? Is there a possibility that if this is not handled quickly and appropriately that we who live in North Port could possibly be subjected to this contaminated spillage?