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Chamber-promoted study links algal blooms to septic tanks

A recent study by Florida Atlantic University points to aging septic tanks as a leading cause of pollution in the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie Estuary.

On Wednesday, the Florida Chamber of Commerce released the fifth installment of a water education series, touting the new study.

Dr. Brian Lapointe, a professor with the FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, produced the research. Lapointe and Florida Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson debuted the video in the Senate Office Building.

Joining the two were legislators from the algae-afflicted areas, including Sen. Debbie Mayfield and Reps. Gayle HarrelLarry Lee Jr., Thad Altman and Randy Fine.

Harrel, a Stuart Republican, and Mayfield, a Melbourne Republican, are advancing policies that will address the issues unearthed by the study. Harrel recently introduced HB 339, something she describes as “Legacy 2.0” because it seeks to set aside 7.6 percent of Amendment 1 funding each year to convert septic tanks to sewers. Mayfield introduced an accompanying bill in the Senate, SB 786.

Wilson said anticipated population growth led the Chamber to make Florida water quality a priority.

“If you think about Florida’s future,” Wilson said, “here’s what we know: more people are going to need more water.”

The fact that Florida is adding 1,000 people each day, he continued, means an additional 6 million people will be living in Florida by 2030.

“So, water matters,” Wilson said.

Before debuting the video, Lapointe briefly recapped his research.

“A leading cause of this pollution are aging septic tanks, which are leaking into the Indian River Lagoon and Port St. Lucie Estuary and other parts of the state,” Lapointe said. “The evidence is undeniable.”

He said the research points to septic tanks because he found “alarming” amounts fecal coliform bacteria and “traces” of Sucralose (artificial sweetener) and acetaminophen in water collections. These chemicals, Lapointe said, are exclusive to humans.

During the video, Deborah Drum, an employee with Martin County’s Ecosystem Restoration and Management, Engineering Department, says the algal blooms of the St. Lucie Estuary result in a $4.8 million loss to yearly revenues.

Ted Astolfi, CEO of the Economic Council of Martin County, said he agrees with the research. Removing septic tanks, he said, is the one of the key steps in protecting the waterways that bring $650 million to the county.

“The business community and residents of Martin County know there’s no single solution and we must follow the science and fund solutions that will make a difference,” Astolfi said.

Some reporters later questioned whether U.S. Sugar financed the research.

Wilson said U.S. Sugar did not fund the research itself, but he conceded the education and promotion of the study is funded by a Chamber grant. The study does acknowledge that Martin County’s Utilities Department supported the work.

Wilson, who seemed miffed by the question, argued the research isn’t a diversion of anything and is instead a demonstration of his organization investing in Florida’s future.

“I happen to be happy to work for a business organization that’s focusing on the long term,” Wilson said. “Not the short term.”

Written By

Danny McAuliffe is a Tallahassee correspondent for Florida Politics. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as the editor of the FSView & Florida Flambeau. He is a lifelong Floridian and indulges in swimming, hiking, running and memes when the news cycle permits. Reach him at

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