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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

It is not just a matter of money

By Ed Foster

Two workers have been hospitalized for hydrogen-sulfide inhalation caused by a failure to follow OSHA procedures for working in “confined spaces.” Citizens are complaining of pulmonary illnesses that they suspect are related to the release of hydrogen-sulfide gas. The city acknowledges that hydrogen sulfide is in our underground water and is emitted during the dewatering process needed to install sewer lines on Marco.

How does the city respond? The City’s Public Information Coordinator suggests that windows and doors be sealed with duct tape and that people stay inside during working hours or leave the island entirely. The first two suggestions are ridiculous: dewatering is a 24/7 operation to keep the trenches dry enough to work in. It doesn’t stop when the workers go home and if you seal your house tightly enough so that hydrogen sulfide gas cannot enter, you’ll suffocate for lack of oxygen. Advising residents to leave the island is tantamount to evicting them so the city can dig ditches.


It is time to ask: “Why are we doing this?” Forget the cost for a moment (if you can). Why are we destroying our island to install sewers? Are they necessary? In a word, “no”; they are not necessary. The city has never been able to demonstrate a need for sewers. The city has never been able to show significant pollution that could be correlated with the use of septic systems. The city has garnered “letters of support” from various agencies and has been able to elicit “opinions” from agency heads in favor of sewers, but it has never produced one iota of verifiable scientific evidence that indicates the need for sewers on our island.


Water quality tests have shown negligible levels of fecal coliform in our canals. That which could possibly be related to the use of septic systems amounts to approximately 1% of the state-established safe level for water used for recreational purposes (swimming, fishing, boating, etc.) That certainly does not constitute “pollution.” When test data failed to support the need for sewers, the city halved the water-testing budget which certainly puts the lie to any statement that the STRP was instituted to save us from pollution.


At a city workshop held in March 2006, the head of the Fort Myers DEP confirmed that Marco waters are not polluted. He denied any plan was afoot to force the city to install sewers and agreed that the location of the Marco Island wastewater treatment plant near the mouth of the Marco River and Gulf is far from ideal. A Rookery Bay scientist who examined the data could find no correlation between nitrogen in our canals with the use of septic systems and opined that the nitrogen buildup was coming from fertilizer runoff and grass clippings.


The Federal EPA, and Florida DEP and DOH in Tallahassee support the use of “managed on-site wastewater treatment,” i.e., properly installed and maintained septic systems, and find them safer than central sewers in many instances. The Federal EPA considers central sewers the second most significant polluter of the environment in the United States; only agricultural runoff is worse. The EPA also estimates that more than 850 billion gallons of raw sewage leak from sewer lines each year on its way to the processing plant. Raw sewage overflows into our lakes, rivers and ocean about 40,000 times each year and is responsible for approximately 2,000 beach closures averaging 10 days in duration. Between 1.8 and 3.5 million people become ill each year from swimming in sewage-polluted waters. These are facts, not opinions; you can verify them yourselves.


So why does the council insist upon sewering the island? In my opinion, it is because they cannot admit to having made a mistake. The STRP is primarily the brainchild of an ex-councilor who refused to run for re-election and defend his Frankenstein. He devised the sewer plan and convinced the council it was necessary because the council trusted him. As one councilor told me two years ago, “He was supposed to be our utility expert. We believed him and followed what he said. Now I feel I’m on a freight train and can’t get off.”


It is time this man’s legacy came to an end. The fact that he once worked for an electric utility does not qualify him to render judgment on a sewer utility. It is time the council admitted that it made a mistake, stop this project dead in its tracks, exercise the city’s prerogative to cancel contracts, and work out a plan to minimize the financial damages that are bound to ensue.


People’s lives, people’s quality of life, and the protection of our environment are at stake. We must get off this freight train now!


Ed Foster

Former Chairman of C.A.R.E.S., Inc.

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