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Senate panel briefed on septic tanks’ contribution to algae outbreak

Septic tanks are one of the primary triggers for toxic algae blooms throughout the state, the Senate Agriculture, Environment and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee was told Wednesday.

A presentation was given by Dr. Brian Lapointe, who has worked as a research professor at Florida Atlantic University and has studied water quality in the state for decades.

He has previously produced work, funded by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, showing that septic tanks are a large contributor to the pollution that allows algae blooms to spawn in Florida’s waterways.

“I personally consider this the most important and urgent issue facing our state,” Lapointe said.

That runs counter, however, to many environmental groups who put the blame mostly on phosphorus from fertilizer runoff from sugar farms.

Yet, a 2016 article from the Sun Sentinel showed that under 6 percent of the phosphorus in Lake Okeechobee came from land made up of sugar fields.

Lapointe also argued that nitrogen — not phosphorus — is driving much of the recent blue-green algae activity.

“While phosphorus was the main nutrient controlling algae blooms in freshwaters, it’s nitrogen that controls these blooms in the marine environment. And actually, we now know that even nitrogen in freshwaters controls these bloom we’re seeing with the blue-green algae in Lake Okeechobee. It’s not just phosphorus.”

He then focused on the use of septic systems in large portions of the state as a primary culprit of contributing to the pollution which allows algae to thrive. “About 39 percent of Floridians rely on septic systems,” Lapointe said.

“That’s much higher than the national average. And as we do more studies of septic systems in relation to algae blooms, we see that they are becoming a bigger and bigger piece of the pie of where the nutrients are coming from causing those algae blooms.”

The problem, he argues, isn’t with faulty septic tanks, but with the basic design of the tanks: “Septic systems provide only primary treatment and are not designed to remove nutrients like nitrogen or phosphorus, bacteria, viruses, pharmaceuticals, or organic wastewater compounds.”

Septic tanks “are designed to leak. They have two basic components. They have a tank that holds the solids, and they have a drain field that the liquid effluent from that tank flows to percolate down through the soil.

“And one of the problems is that those contaminants travel down through the soil, they’re not treated adequately, and reach the groundwater and, ultimately, surface waters.”

Lapointe also argued that Florida’s soils aren’t designed to deal with the runoff.

“The problem is the soils, to a large extent in Florida, are not suitable, sandy, porous soils that allow for rapid percolation of the effluent through the soil into the groundwater.”

Florida was hit with several different algae blooms throughout 2018, including a severe red tide.

As for potential solutions, Lapointe cited the Cudjoe regional wastewater treatment plant as a model for the state going forward.

“This plant is one of the state-of-the-art plants in Florida. It reduces nitrogen, which comes out of a septic tank at about 70 mg/liter down to 1 mg/liter. This is what we need to do all around Florida to clean up wastewater.”

Lapointe also fingered severe weather events as a contributor to flooding, which overloads Florida’s waterways and allows the blooms to spread.

“We have to realize that these blooms I’ve been talking about are being driven, to a large extent, by these extreme rainfall events.”

He then pitched senators to help secure state funding to help municipalities move on from septic tanks, where possible: “These local governments cannot do this on their own. They need help … I think we need a Manhattan Project. We’ve got to go to war against algae.”

Written By

Ryan Nicol covers news out of South Florida for Florida Politics. Ryan is a native Floridian who attended undergrad at Nova Southeastern University before moving on to law school at Florida State. After graduating with a law degree he moved into the news industry, working in TV News as a writer and producer, along with some freelance writing work. If you'd like to contact him, send an email to ryan.t.nicol@gmail.com.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Scott Carmody

    January 10, 2019 at 3:22 pm

    50+ years of a walk away FDOH septic system permitting program with mismanaged rules and regulations have created the mess of hundreds of thousands of leaky and failing septic systems to operate throughout Florida. We do nothing to assist septic system owners with prevention, incentive or repair programs to help them keep their systems operating as efficiently as possible. We just permit the systems and walk away. This adds an unnecessary 10 MILLION lbs. of nitrogen to our waters every year. To put this in perspective this is equal to connecting 434,782 septic systems to sewer at a cost of $13 BILLION, and it grows bigger every year. This is easily preventable and affordable to fix, but we do nothing. The 10 million lbs. of nitrogen are over and above the nitrogen contamination numbers, you are getting from the state, as they do not acknowledge the additional nitrogen contamination from leaky and failing septic systems in their nitrogen reduction plans.

    We have 2.6 million septic systems operating throughout Florida knowing that it is likely that one-third or more are not properly maintained, many more are operating well beyond their life expectancy. Plus, we allow an estimated 2.2 billion gallons of their unregulated raw sewage to be pumped and dumped throughout the state annually. We are supposed to believe that none of this has any impact on our waters and our only solutions to reduce nitrogen from septic systems is to septic-to-sewer an insignificant amount of systems, or upgrade the old system with a new and improved system that has a difficult time reducing any more nitrogen than the system it replaced

    If our nitrogen reduction plan does not recognize, reduce and control the additional nitrogen from mismanaged septic system programs there is no chance the state or local nitrogen reduction plans will have any effect at all of reducing nitrogen in our waters. It’s comparable to draining a bathtub with a tablespoon and leaving the water on, you’re simply not going to catch up. Every other industry understands that you must first reduce, limit and contain your problem, as this process helps you better understand and control the problem to prevent it from getting worse. Only after you follow these steps can you best evaluate and develop sound and economical solutions to repair, reduce or possibly eliminate the problem. This is usually how contamination problems are solved in most industries.

    Our current nitrogen reduction plan is to ignore the 2.6 million septic systems currently operating under flawed and inadequate septic system rules and regulations, that unnecessarily adds 10 million lbs. of nitrogen a year to our waters. Spend $50 million a year to fund septic to sewer programs that can only remove 1,667 septic systems, removing only 38,333 lbs. of nitrogen a year. In our environmentally sensitive areas, the State’s “BMAP” plan is going to force homeowners to install “advanced” septic systems that have proven not to perform any better than the septic system it replaces, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the taxpayers. So honestly, how well do you think this plan is going to work out for the taxpayers, property owners and our waters?

    How can we learn, evaluate or improve the impact of a “device” that is claimed to have a negative impact on our environment when you don’t know how many devices you have, their condition, if they are working properly, if they are maintained properly or if their hazardous waste is being disposed of properly?

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    January 12, 2019 at 10:23 pm

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  3. Tracy Ridout

    January 13, 2019 at 5:14 pm

    I live in Brevard County Fl and last year 32 million gallons of sewage was dumped in the Indian River lagoon. Devastating the Marine life.. and each county along the River, which are five, are allowed to dump 90 days out of the year..minimal fines…. what about that?

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