Turning the Toxic Tide

The issue of failing septic systems and proper wastewater treatment is chronic to many parts of Florida (including Southwest Florida), as this multi-part opinion piece details.

Originally published by USA TODAY on March 27, 2019

Florida must address the problem of human waste

870,000 gallons of sewage spills into Indian River Lagoon in Titusville Florida Today

Turning the Toxic Tide is a series of editorials published collectively by the six editorial boards of USA TODAY Network-Florida, with the goal of providing an environmental road map for Gov. Ron DeSantis, state legislators and Florida’s congressional delegation. This is the fifth in the series. 

Florida has a poop problem. And we need to clean up the mess. 

There are an estimated 2.6 million septic tanks in our state. We don’t know how many are properly functioning to ensure they don’t leak into waterways because there’s no inspection requirement. Florida had such a requirement for two years, until the state Legislature repealed that law in 2012. Milder attempts to crack down also failed, such as a bill requiring sellers to notify homebuyers that their home has a septic system.

Not all septic tanks in the state need to be removed — but even systems that are functioning properly can be a threat to the environment. Tanks installed on sandy soil or too close to waterways can be risky because there’s not enough filtration of effluents. A properly maintained septic tank and drain field, combined, can remove up to 40 percent of significant nutrients. 

Counties and municipalities along impaired waterways need help connecting more homes to sewer lines. Several bills are proposed in the current legislative session to allocate state matching dollars for that purpose and to bring back inspection requirements. One of those bills, filed by state Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, would create a wastewater grant program, among other things. Gov. Ron DeSantis has made the environment a priority, so ending session without a dedicated fund would be a letdown. 

Septic tanks are just one part of this messy issue.

Sewage pipes, pump stations and treatment facilities fail if not maintained properly and regularly. Hurricane Irma overwhelmed sewage infrastructure across the state in 2017, causing spills in 39 counties, including 30 million gallons that were dumped into the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County.

Local governments have the responsibility to keep their sewage systems up to date by fixing leaky pipes and making sure pump stations have generators in case of long power outages. Mayfield’s Senate Bill 1758 would require utilities to notify customers of unlawful discharges of raw or partially treated sewage into any waterway. That’s a necessary first step toward more accountability. Another bill, House Bill 141, would require local governments pay a state fine if spills happen.

Even with state-of-the art infrastructure, there’s a significant problem facing Florida: biosolids, the sludge resulting from treated sewage. 

Two-thirds of Florida’s biosolids are spread on private land, according to a 2017 TCPalm investigation. Half of it requires a permit and cannot be dumped near certain waterways (because it is less treated), but the other half can be used as fertilizer and limitless amounts can be applied near waterways, where its nitrogen and phosphorous potentially feed algae blooms. The Legislature is considering bills to tighten regulations on the use of biosolids.

Septic tanks and human waste have often been used by other polluters — including some in the agriculture industry — as scapegoats. Converting septic to sewer alone won’t clean up Florida’s springs, lakes and coastal estuaries. We still have to reduce Lake Okeechobee discharges to the east and west, and contend with the fertilizer, stormwater runoff, muck buildup and even grass clippings that plague the Indian River Lagoon.

“We’re suffering death by 1,000 cuts,” said Virginia Barker, director of the Brevard County Natural Resources Management Office, which works on lagoon cleanup.

No one said cleaning up Florida’s impaired waterways would be easy.

It’s a problem that has developed over decades and one we all contribute to every time we flush our toilets.

This editorial reflects the opinion of the editorial boards of all six USA TODAY Network-Florida news organizations: FLORIDA TODAY, Naples Daily News, The News-Press, Pensacola News Journal, Tallahassee Democrat and TCPalm/Treasure Coast Newspapers. 

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