Residents File Suit Against ECUA Over Sewage Tanks

Mar 29, 2016

Aerial view of proposed site for tanks.

Twenty-one residents and three businesses in the North Hill area of Pensacola are suing Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, over plans to build sewage storage tanks on North Palafox Street property.

Plaintiff attorney Erick Mead says the lawsuit carries three basic courses of action – first, a motion for a temporary injunction, possibly as soon as mid-April.

“That is based on a violation of the public meetings law,” claims Mead. “There was no discussion, no reference in any of the agendas or minutes, of putting sewage tanks on the site, as far back as the May [2015] meeting when they authorized negotiation for purchase of the property.”

The second is recouping $19.5 million paid by the city, to get sewage treatment and storage out of downtown and to the new plant in Cantonment. The third course of action, says Mead, deals with the threat of air pollution, for which there’s already a statutory injunction available.

Citing public records requests, Mead contends that the public meetings law cannot be avoided by failing to mention key or controversial questions to avoid public participation. He points to what he calls “good clear authority” from the attorney general’s office, which has been recognized by a number of circuit courts.

ECUA purchased the old Palafox Medical Center, aiming to place two tanks on the property – each with a three million gallon capacity, according to Nathalie Bowers at ECUA.

“The proposed tanks are for emergency purposes only,” said Bowers, “Should there ever be a breach in the transmission main that carries wastewater from the downtown area up to the central water reclamation facility in Cantonment.”

The utility plans to erect the tanks on the lower part of the property. But most of the four and a half story tall containers would still be in plain sight to area homes and businesses, but likely not needed.

“Primarily the tanks will be empty; hopefully they will always be empty and never be used,” Bowers says.

Plaintiff attorney Erick Mead is holding out an olive branch of sorts, saying the litigation does not have to move forward if everyone could take a step back and a deep breath.

“I think it would be wise of ECUA to bring matters to a halt at this point, and let the court sort these issues out, rather than forcing us to go to an injunction hearing,” said Mead. “That’s of course up to them.”

Calls seeking an interview with Brad Odom, ECUA’s chief counsel, were not returned. Odom did tell the Pensacola News Journal that he considers the suit "legally tenuous" and the assertion that ECUA violated public meetings laws a "novel concept."