Let’s save the coral reefs and the ocean

17 Sep

According to some irritated homeowners, two lower Florida Keys sewage treatment plant operators are playing dirty tricks in their permit applications to inject over a million gallons a day of sewage into shallow injection wells on Cudjoe Key and Stock Island.

They claim that FKAA is using unrealistic old data projections from 2008, advertised it’s legal notices to Monroe County residents in Lee and Broward Counties and would have you believe that “we drink water worse than we‘re producing with Advanced Wastewater Treatment. [Actual quote from County Commissioner David Rice.]

On June 25th a group of Cudjoe area homeowners filed an administrative petition challenging FKAA’s permit for the Cudjoe plant followed last Tuesday by environmental group Last Stand’s challenge against the privately owned Key West Resort Utility Corporation permit for their Stock Island plant.

These legal challenges have triggered something that we thought would never happen: They’ve finally let the cat out of the bag, revealing the Keys most guarded, dirty little secret: Thousands of homes, unconnected to central sewage plants, are seeping untreated sewage into the ground and into the ocean while using various types of shallow wells, pipes, filtrations systems, and outdated sewer plants cannot keep up with the influx of visitors.

According to FDEP, “Most shallow wells in the Florida Keys are only operational when the tide is receding.” [Black and Veatch, Meeting Memorandum – December 22, 2008] In a September 2013 report to the US Congress, the Florida Keys Sanctuary Water Protection Program committee wrote, “the presence of elevated nitrate concentrations in the near-shore waters of the highly populated Keys and its continued absence in the unpopulated Dry Tortugas region suggest that land-based pollutants, such as poorly treated sewage and stormwater runoff, are entering the nearshore waters of the Keys.”

It’s not a pretty picture: In the Cudjoe area 8,000 homes are not connected to central sewage plants and use septic tanks and various homemade contraptions that allow questionable wastewater to seep into the ground and nearshore waters.

Key Haven has its own sewage treatment plant [now run by FKAA] that treats wastewater to outdated secondary treatment standards and has an outfall that leads directly into the ocean.

On Stock Island we visited the Wilson Apartments [now under extensive renovation] where the level of sewage in the septic tank was clearly going up and down with the tide and overflowing into the mangroves.

At his resort on Big Pine Key, Harry Appel showed us a state of the art vacuum flush composting water toilet system. Everyone you talk to will tell you about their own special way to try to take care of ‘business,’ but the ultimate result, according to the Sanctuary’s Water Quality Program and FDEP, has basically resulted in a nearshore disaster zone:

Monroe County reports, as of July 10, 2013, there are 67,975 residential units in Monroe County but only 48,706 are connected to centralized sewer plants. That leaves nearly 20,000 still unconnected.

Dead or dying, the reef is covered with green algae fed, in large part, by excess nutrients from faulty sewage systems. According to extensive studies by Dr. Jerrold Weinstock of Key Haven, swimming in a Florida Keys canal could kill you due to the marked presence of a variety of bacteria including fecal bacteria such as E. Coli and enterococcus.

When it comes to water quality, it seems that the usual finger pointing at far away run-off from the Everglades or at the 500 or so liveaboard boaters anchored throughout the County has been no more than a distraction or even a search for a scapegoat. It is high time to redress the impacts the construction boom has had on nearshore water quality.

What to do and what not to do:

FKAA is seeking a permit to begin operating a sewage treatment plant on Cudjoe Key. The water in the Cudjoe plant will be treated to a standard called ‘Advanced Wastewater Treatment’ [AWT] and FKAA is proposing to inject that treated water into four shallow wells at a depth of 80 to 120 feet. The plan’s proponents say the project will greatly improve the overall water quality by collecting the sewage from those 8,000 unconnected homes.

On Stock Island, the treatment plant will not process to AWT standards until 2016, but more injection wells are needed to connect the large new developments around Safe Harbor. The owners of the plant, who are also the managers of the Stock Island golf course, claim they could reuse about 1 million gallons per day to irrigate the grass at the course.

Opponents of the permits point out that even AWT water still contains 10 times the nitrogen and 100 times the phosphorous that is considered healthy for nearshore waters according to Florida law. They say that the treated water injected into the shallow wells around the Cudjoe plant would create a “dead zone” as freshwater charged with harmful nutrients “will quickly rise to the surface through the porous limestone” and generate the green algae blooms which sufffocate the coral reef.

They also claim that the sewage treatment plants will clearly have periods when wastewater inflow is over 1 million gallons per day, which under Florida law requires the installation of a deep injection well. Deep wells are encased down to 2000 feet where the wastewater is injected into deep bolder formations that lie beneath a confinement stratum. “Everyone knows that deep wells are the safer system,” says Deb Curlee, who lives on Cudjoe Key and is Vice President of Last Stand, “it looks as though they just don’t want to spend the money.” [The cost of a deep well has been estimated in the $ 6 Million range.]

In addition to harmful nutrient content, epidemiologists at the Center for Disease Control have endorsed various publications warning about the large array of viruses and pathogens that are left unaffected by AWT treatment. This leads to questions about the public health ramifications of reuse for irrigation in densely populated areas as well as the seepage from shallow injection wells into recreational waters. [Florida law doesn’t require that AWT effluent be tested for the presence of infectious viruses after disinfection.]

“This is as serious as it gets,” says Curlee, “much more important than ‘painting over’ the seven mile bridge for $ 14 Million.”

“Let’s put in place the best that we can with the money that we have,” said Commissioner Danny Kolhage during a public discussion about the issue last month, “The wastewater issue is the number one priority with me.”

It seems that in this case a lack of transparency may have poisoned the debate with suspicion. “What people want,” says George Halloran, one of the Plaintiffs, “is an honest debate. They do not want public notices posted in Fort Lauderdale and fake numbers from 2008.”

On June 27, 2014 Governor Scott [prompted by members of the Isaac Newton League – another grassroots group that has challenged FKAA’s design of the Cudjoe system] ordered an Inspector General investigation into possible violations committed by FKAA and DEP in their handling of the Cudjoe sewer plant planning and permitting process.

Halloran said many possibilities should be explored for the Stock Island plant. A deep well, or consistent reuse of the treated water, or possibly diverting the effluent to the Key West Wastewater Treatment plant on Fleming Key, which treats to AWT standards and uses deep well injection. Apparently Key West’s sewage plant has an unused capacity of approximately 5.5 million gallons per day.

One thing is certain: Coming to a close on the ‘sewage situation’ should not be pushed aside any longer. Installing the best, safest systems countywide should be an absolute priority.

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