John Strayer can remember a time when he could walk outside of his Highland View residence in the summertime without worrying about the smell in his neighborhood.
But since 2014, he said, when the weather gets warm, he knows to anticipate an odor from the Port St. Joe Wastewater Plant.
“When you go outside, you just about gag sometimes,” Strayer said at a special meeting called for the Gulf County Board of County Commissioners on September 7. “You turn around and go right back in the house. Your kids can’t play outside. They can’t ride their bikes. You can’t go riding around the block with your kids. You can’t do anything outside untils the winds shift.”
The smell, officials said, is part of an annual algal bloom, which then dies in the plant’s treatment pond, a consistent issue that they have been trying to solve for nearly a decade with little progress.
“What we’re doing is we’ve got solar aerators to try to save money on power. We’ve got biologic enzymes going in there that act like little PAC men and are supposed to eat up the algae to keep that down. And you mentioned the sonic disruptors,” said Port St. Joe Mayor Rex Buzzett at the meeting. “And so you know, we’re doing everything we can.”
The special meeting, which was called after County Commissioner Patrick Ferrell brought up a high volume of Highland View residents calling in about the smell, was intended to give the commissioners the opportunity to speak about solutions to the problem.
The city currently disposes of their treated waste over a 78 acre spray field behind the Highland View neighborhood.
They adopted this system in 2012 after the Florida Department of Environmental Protection deemed their existing disposal methods, which involved pumping treated waste into the bay, environmentally harmful.
At the time when it was adopted, the land application system was a new process, which, according to a Star article from 2010, “eliminate(d) the need for surface water discharge of treated wastewater and satisfy the requirements of the consent order issued by DEP,” said Port St. Joe Mayor Rex Buzzett during the meeting.
“When we had a lot of industry out there… we put in 22 million gallons of fluid into St. Joe Bay every day. But the paper mill closed in ‘95 and between ‘95 and 2012, it dropped down because we didn’t have as much industry and as much to treat. We were probably putting a million gallons a day in the St. Joe Bay.”
“We certainly want to protect our bay, and the DEP came in and said ‘guys, you can’t do that anymore’ … so we needed to have a spray field…. and it just didn’t work as good and hasn’t worked as good as we thought. We’re not able to pump enough to the spray fields to keep that lagoon down and keep it from getting like it has.”
This, he continued, has led to the reoccurring issue of algal blooms.
Buzzett said that the city’s wastewater plant manager, Kevin Pettis, was looking into alternative solutions that they hope will help prevent or more quickly treat algal blooms in the future.
The mayor also mentioned that Deseret Cattle and Timber had approached the city about allowing their cows to graze on the spray fields, where the treated wastewater acts as a kind of fertilizer and grass grows rapidly.
But county officials suggested alternative solutions.
According to County Commissioner Phil McCroan, who formerly served with the Port St. Joe City Commission, the current city commissioners “inherited a bad situation.”
“Sometimes your hands are tied with DEP and the state on what you can and cannot do, but I’d love to see a solution, and I’d love to see the county help the city,” McCroan said.
County Administrator Michael Hammond mentioned that funding had been set aside for an advanced wastewater treatment (AWT) plant, in which treated wastewater would undergo additional treatment, removing nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus and making it safer to discharge into bodies of fresh or saline water.
“The county’s got a $25 million grant to do an AWT,” Hammond said. “It’d be perfect to team with the city to do that. But again, if this crap smell was coming down Reid Avenue. It would have been fixed a long time ago. Highland View gets screwed every single year.”
But while Mayor Buzzett said the city was open to collaboration with the county, the commissioners had previously discussed some of their concerns about an AWT plant that they felt might warrant further consideration.
“The AWT though, we’ve done some research on that, Kevin has, and one thing that’ll be different is it has to be manned 24/7. You can’t run two shifts,” Buzzett said. “The power to run it is like six times higher than we’re paying now to run it.”
The mayor explained that the city had been working not to raise their water and sewer rates and that higher costs associated with operating an AWT plant would likely cause them to have to do so.
No solutions were reached at the meeting, though officials expressed wanting to continue discussions.