The City of Marathon insists its wastewater treatment plants and protocols are Florida’s ‘gold standard.’ Keys Weekly File Photo

Alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, environmental group Friends of the Lower Keys (FOLKs) filed suit in the Southern District of the U.S. District Court against the City of Marathon on Jan. 11.

The lawsuit challenges the city’s practice of discharging wastewater in injection wells 60 to 120 feet underground. Though the water is treated before discharge, the lawsuit states that the ground around the area of the injection wells is made of highly porous limestone known as karst, allowing polluted water to make its way quickly from the wells into nearshore waters. 

In doing so, FOLKs alleges that the city is violating the Clean Water Act by discharging wastewater into Florida Keys waters without possessing a National Pollutant Discharge and Elimination System (NPDES) permit.

The suit claims that water quality standard violations caused by injection well discharges in turn harm endangered fish, corals, turtles and other species as well as their delicate habitats, thereby constituting a violation of the Endangered Species Act through an unlawful “take” of these organisms.

FOLKs aims to force Marathon to switch from shallow injection wells to deep wells that discharge pollutants more than 2,000 feet underground.

Issuing a statement in response, Marathon City Manager George Garrett said he disagrees with FOLKs’ allegations. 

“The plaintiff challenges the city’s longstanding practice of disposing our citizens’ highly treated wastewater into injection wells pursuant to federally enforceable permits issued by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection,” said Garrett. “Our septic to sewer program and advanced wastewater treatment systems are the gold standard in Florida, and our track record of environmental compliance and green infrastructure investments speak for themselves,” said Garrett. 

The city’s statement points to multiple awards won by its wastewater and stormwater treatment system, including the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)’s Pisces Award for “its holistic approach to the treatment system design” in 2008. It also goes on to mention that the treatment system was named as the American Public Works Association Project of the Year in the “Environment” category in 2013.

The City of Marathon has hired environmental law experts David Childs and Gary Perko of the Holtzman Vogel firm to assist City Attorney Steve Williams with the city’s defense in court.

““Our core responsibility is to protect the public health and the environment and to do so in a cost-effective manner for our community,” said Williams. “Given the potential ramifications of the plaintiff’s requested relief to our utility ratepayers, we are taking it very seriously.” 

Williams, Perko and Childs will address the Marathon City Council to discuss the case in a closed attorney-client session on Tuesday, Feb. 8.

FOLKs is represented by Mark Migdal and Hayden. Judge Jose E. Martinez will preside over the case.

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Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.