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Swimming in Sewage

by ALAN FARAGO

Across the state of Florida, an oceanic flow of municipal sewage is injected underground, and also, through shallower (ASR) wells to “store” stormwater for later retrieval, treatment and use.

The manipulation of aquifers is a cost of growth. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the final costs of manipulating aquifers are incalculable.

There are basically two forms of aquifer exploitation in Florida: Both take advantage of the theory — supported by state and federal regulations — that what is dumped underground will not move from where it is confined.

In 2001, an angry public caused Gov. Jeb Bush to retreat from legislation that would have allowed polluted stormwater to be injected underground. Most people are unaware that Bush, since then, has blessed the proliferation of aquifer exploitation anyway.

Most people are not surfers. The surfers believe that the documented seepage of our dirty water from aquifers is pushing onto beaches where they surf. That is why they are getting earaches, skin infections and respiratory illnesses. Bush and state agencies haven’t spent a lot of energy investigating if they are right.

When the swell is pumping clean waves, everything is right with the world, but when there is sewage in the water, well . . . stuff floats, dude.

The governor might want to talk with Tom Warnke, Surfrider Palm Beach chapter chair, who says that last year in Brevard County, surf crashed through red tide and created a mist so toxic that people had trouble breathing, and “Realtors didn’t want to show prospective buyers property.”

Last week, the Surfrider Foundation and Wetlands Alert shot an arrow across the bow of the Environmental Protection Agency, suggesting that massive water infrastructure projects planned by three Florida counties to fuel more growth cannot use federal funds to drill ASR wells until an adequate environmental study is performed.

The law requiring protection of the public health and environment when federal resources are at stake is called the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Like other major federal environmental laws, it is under attack by the Bush White House.

For years, Florida environmentalists have implored Jeb Bush to tell the public exactly the scope and scale of aquifer exploitation in Florida, including the disclosure by FDEP of relevant statistics and the cost of alternatives. Nada. Test data on ASR wells are guarded as though they were a state secret.

FDEP is not only stonewalling on data and the illegal leaking of effluent back upward toward the surface, it is permitting more and more of these wells. Last year, new legislation sponsored by Democratic legislators, Rep. Dan Gelber and Sen. Tony Hill, would have compelled FDEP to report what it would not voluntarily do. The effort, proposed by the Sierra Club, was squashed by then FDEP Secretary David Struhs.

What the Jeb Bush administration has supported, though, is revising the provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act regulation that prohibits the migration of injected fluids into overlying layers. In a real shocker, the EPA says it will not rule on Florida’s request until December 2004, which is after the presidential election.

Recently, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) issued a report, “Swimming in Sewage,” highlighting Florida in the context of an emerging national crisis. According to Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC’s Clean Water Project, “Fortunately we do have the technological know-how to deal with this sewage problem. What we don’t have is political will. In fact, President Bush’s new budget proposal dramatically slashes funding for wastewater infrastructure. At nearly $500 million, it’s his biggest cut for any environmental program, and it’s indefensible.”

So right on, surfriders. Gov. Bush isn’t listening to you, but with each week, he shows the similarities between his administration and the embattled White House, described recently by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, as: “an administration that says whatever is necessary to get what it wants. When its claims turn out not to add up, [it] assumes people will just forget what it said earlier and move on.”

What do the surfer dudes know that Tallahassee and Washington don’t? That staph infections don’t discriminate by age, race, or creed; nor does giardia, cryptosporidium, or other toxics our government is not measuring, because telling people the facts might, like, just be a bummer, man.

If the surfers could scrape together enough money for a massive lawsuit, a federal judge might require the end to aquifer exploitation in Florida. Think about it: A court battle could take years to unfold and by 2006, when Florida will elect a new governor, citizen Jeb Bush might just want to see what all the fuss is about.

ALAN FARAGO has been writing about environmental issues for the past 15 years. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel. For information on Surfrider, check: http://www.surfriderpbc.org/index.html


 

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Alan Farago is president of Friends of the Everglades and can be reached at afarago@bellsouth.net

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