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Thursday, March 20, 2008

FDEP - A Cesspool

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  • Private wastewater treatment plants often fail to make repairs

    By Pedro Morales • pmorales@news-press.com • March 22, 2008
    Raw sewage has spilled, leaked and emitted foul odors from at least a quarter of Lee County's wastewater plants over the past five years.

    The News-Press reviewed thousands of records of wastewater plants that landed on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's violations list. The investigation found repeat offenders and delinquent plants have polluted Southwest Florida's environment and threatened the health of residents.

    The DEP has issued warnings and fines from Bonita Springs to Lehigh Acres to Captiva to North Fort Myers with little effect. The operators of the plants, and their networks of pipes, are failing to repair ongoing violations.

    "A lot of them are profit-making entities," said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida, a Tallahassee-based coalition. "They are not going to voluntarily spend money. As long as no one is harassing them and DEP is not speaking up, (private owners are) thinking, why should I?"

    Environmentalists say the polluting plants are poisoning tributaries that drain into the Gulf of Mexico.

    Several water bodies in the Caloosahatchee River Basin, which covers two-thirds of Lee and parts of Charlotte, Hendry and Glades counties; the Everglades West Coast Basin, which covers southern Lee and Collier; and Charlotte Harbor have been classified as “impaired” by the DEP since 1998, when the first assessments were done. The waters fail to comply with the Clean Water Act — a 1972 federal act created to regulate discharges into the country’s waters and set standards for water quality.

    Dirty water also can have an economic impact. For example, in late September when the waters of Sanibel were polluted, businesses on the island lost money because tourists were forced to look for other beaches.

    Residents have filed dozens of complaints against plants to the DEP — reporting headaches and nausea in one complaint and damaged property after a sewage spill in another, according to DEP records.

    Plant owners offered little or no response to repeated calls by The News-Press.
    Those who did speak do not deny the problems — they are required to self-report.

    Wastewater management is a dirty business. Sometimes mistakes happen, but spills and leaks are quickly fixed, according to Patrick Flynn of Eagle Ridge Utilities.

    The plants’ owners insist they are following the regulations set forth by DEP.

    But sometimes residents tend to exaggerate a problem, said Flynn.

    Complaints are “subjective in nature,” he said.

    Complaints are not filed electronically, so there is no accurate count of how many residents say they are feeling the effects.
    Problem plants

    Twenty-two of Lee County’s 80 operating residential and business plants did not fix malfunctioning equipment even after warnings, placing the facilities on the county violation list at some point since 2003.

    The county has a nearly 28 percent violation average for that time period. That does not include plants that landed on the list and are no longer in operation.

    About 16 percent of Lee’s plants, 13 total, are on the violation list.

    Lee is ranked fourth of 67 counties in the state when it comes to wastewater plant violations.

    The majority of the county’s plants are privately owned and run, and therein lies a problem.

    “As an observation, most smaller plants began as a necessity of the developer to provide wastewater treatment to their subdivision,” said Fred Partin, executive director of Bonita Springs Utilities, a nonprofit organization that oversees Bonita’s public wastewater plants.

    A plant run by a county or city has one mission — to provide service to its taxpayers, Partin said.

    One run by the private sector may be more influenced by profit.

    “Some of them (the developers and homeowner associations) fail to make investments in the facility,” Partin said. “The technology is old, they tend to have more problems.”

    Still other private plant operators intend to sell the plant, removing all incentive to make renovations.

    “If we’re the owners of an RV park and we want to sell the park in a couple of years to a developer, why would we put money into the existing plant?” said Dave Gabriel, manager at Shady Acres Travel Park in Estero.

    Gabriel is bucking the trend and investing $225,000 in a new plant to accommodate the park’s growth.

    Most environmentally hazardous violations fall into three categories: spills or leaks, odors and water quality issues.

    Examples of these include:

    • Pink Citrus Mobile Home Park on Bokeelia, which last summer treated water without chlorine, an essential chemical that resulted in discharged water with a high fecal count. The park is still on the violations list for malfunctioning equipment that caused contaminated discharge, but operators are working to solve the problem.

    • The plant at Eagle Ridge Golf & Tennis Club in south Fort Myers has been emitting a foul odor since 1999. Flynn, the plant operator, said he has not heard complaints but residents say the stench continues. The plant is on the violation list.

    • The plant at Jamaica Bay West in south Fort Myers was warned of maintenance issues before a 1.89 million gallon spill of partially treated wastewater Nov. 18, 2002, into Hendry Creek. The next year it spilled 147,600 gallons, but the records do not indicate where. Jamaica Bay remains on the list because of maintenance issues.
    Old and falling apart

    When the Florida Governmental Utility Authority assumed control of the Lehigh wastewater plant on Construction Lane four years ago, it found a nearly 50-year-old facility in disrepair.

    In 2006, that plant leaked at least 20,000 gallons, and had more than 12 spills, mostly of raw sewage, according to records.

    “Previous owners looked at it as a money-making proposition and when it got too expensive they would just sell it,” said Barbara Kerby, the community services representative for the not-for-profit.

    The spills that have occurred over the past years are a result of leaking pipes and malfunctioning pumping stations, which keep the flow of water moving, Kerby said.

    FGUA is on a $91.9-million, five-year campaign to upgrade its facilities, including adding a 3,000-foot deep injection well for extra treated water and replacing sewer pipes.

    Renovations are needed across the United States as wastewater plants break down, said University of California, Davis engineering professor George Tchobanoglous, an author on the topics of wastewater treatment, management and reuse.

    “You have infrastructure that is old and aging, you have staff limitations on treatment plants, you can’t get enough funding for maintenance,” Tchobanoglous said. “If you do deferred maintenance for a long time it will catch up to you.”

    Take for example the wastewater plant that serves Forest Country Club in south Fort Myers. In 1999 the plant’s insurance paid $3,000 to a family who complained sewage spills damaged their home. In 2002 and 2003 the plant was marked out-of-compliance in its annual inspection reports, and in 2005 the plant was fined $20,700 for a spill greater than 10,000 gallons.

    Later that year, very little had changed and it received a significant-out-of-compliance on its annual report. The country club remains on the list for compliance issues.
    Lack of vision

    Since 2000, 174,853 people have moved into Lee County, a growth of about 39.7 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

    Planning ahead is an expensive venture for wastewater plants, Partin said. A plant will forecast its expansion based on the number of projected homes and population, an estimate that is not always on target.

    “It’s been a real challenge,” Partin said, speaking about Bonita Springs Utilities, which in 1998 was serving 16,390 households but now serves more than double that.

    “Often times you have to speculate to some degree what’s on the horizon,” Partin said. “You don’t want to make an investment in infrastructure to have it sit there.”

    DEP records show some plants are receiving too much sewage, resulting in a number of spills and leaks that were forewarned by inspectors in warning letters.

    In Estero’s Covered Wagon Trailer Park, DEP inspectors sent a warning letter to wastewater operators in October 2000 that from January to July of 2000, “the monthly daily average flow (was) 80 to 100 percent capacity.”

    Five years later, the plant was still at near capacity. In April 2005 the plant received another letter that its collection ponds were overflowing.

    In the summer of 2006, DEP received a complaint from a plant operator that the facility was in “terrible shape” and was treating wastewater over its permitted capacity. The plant has since resolved its capacity issues and is no longer on the violation list. But it remains an example of how some plants are taking in more than they can handle.

    “They’re waiting (to expand) until they’re at 100 percent capacity,” said Mary Rawl, a Fort Myers activist involved in water issues. “When you’re at 100 percent capacity you know you will have illicit discharges. “You plan five years ahead, you don’t wait for spills,” she said.
    Spoiled paradise

    Plant owners and DEP officials continue to grapple with problems, while residents stand by waiting for permanent solutions.

    One of those homeowners, Atiq Ahson, says despite the home’s prime location in a south Fort Myers golf community, the stench coming from the Eagle Ridge wastewater plant has scared away potential buyers.

    Ahson’s son couldn’t even go outside because the odor bothered his allergies.

    “I have complained about this so many times,” said Ahson, who for 22 years has lived near the wastewater plant. He blames the plant for the smell for keeping guests away and hampering the sale of their home.

    Since 1999 the residents at Eagle Ridge have filed grievances about the stink — going so far as to complain about headaches and nausea in one complaint dated May 6, 1999.

    The plant continues to emanate an odor.

    “A complaint doesn’t necessarily indicate the need to install odor control,” said Flynn, who runs Eagle Ridge, where odor complaints date back to 1999.

    “The records are clear that we took the steps to control odor when it was necessary to do so,” said Flynn, who added he has not received any complaints recently.

    Residents say otherwise.

    Scott Bradley has gotten so used to the smell coming from the water treatment facility near his house he doesn’t notice it anymore. He and his family have found a solution for dealing with the smell.

    “We just don’t go (outside),” he said.

    Beachgoers are becoming all too familiar with the red and yellow no-swimming advisories on Lee’s beaches that follow a high fecal bacteria reading, as happened on March 11 at Bowditch Point.

    There were three pollution warnings in 2007, two of them on Sanibel, when the Lee County Health Department found high levels of Enterococcus bacteria. The same fecal bacteria closed Bowditch Beach during the peak of spring break season.

    The third advisory in 2007 was also on Sanibel, when Lighthouse Beach closed for a week in June.

    Environmentalists see a connection between these contaminated waters and the plants whose record of non-compliance often includes spills and leaks into the rivers and Gulf.

    “We’re trying to promote the Great Calusa Blueway and water-based tourism in Lee County,” said Rawl. “So this just doesn’t make sense to me at all that we’re not protecting our public and our water.”

    Ralph Woodring knows his water is polluted. Another round of algae bloom began appearing in early February on Sanibel, making the water mucky. Normally he blames Lake Okeechobee water released by the Army Corps of Engineers. Not this time. The last water releases were on Feb. 14, 2007.

    “It takes a certain kind of nutrient to make this stuff grow,” said Woodring, who owns the Bait Box on Sanibel. “Obviously the lake is not releasing nutrients but it takes nutrients from somewhere to make this stuff grow.”

    He sent a sample of the algae to Bruce Neill of the Sanibel Sea School, who is working with the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce to identify the source of the nitrogen. It will either be from fertilizer or wastewater effluent, Neill said.

    The results are expected in seven weeks, but Neill said he believes the source may point to wastewater plants on Sanibel that reuse their effluent to spray golf courses.

    The golf courses should absorb the nutrients, but if the effluent pollutants are above pollution standards the ground won’t remove the excess nutrients, which then drain into Tarpon Bay, Neill said.

    “Any package plant not properly maintained... they do produce an effluent that overruns into the estuary and that’s as high a powered nutrient as you can make,” Woodring said.

    The Clean Water Network of Florida is expected in May to release an assessment of the water that plants are releasing into the Gulf of Mexico. The early findings of the two-year, 36-county study are gloomy.

    “There are widespread violations of permits and almost no enforcement by DEP or requirements of upgrades to be made,” said Linda Young, director of Clean Water.
    A dirty business

    Wastewater plant operators, for their part, say they are doing everything in their power to meet DEP regulations and plan for the future. They admit there are the occasional spills, leaks or smells, but these are unintended consequences of a messy business.

    “There is no such thing as a perfect wastewater plant,” said James Nault, who oversaw the plant at the Pink Citrus trailer park between 1998 and 2005, when a number of violations were found.

    “Given that a wastewater treatment plant operates seven days a week, it’s real easy to find a violation,” said Nault, who was with the Palm Harbor Development Group.

    “The tendency for plant operators is to report everything no matter how small. And of course it goes on the reports.”

    And not every violation necessarily indicates a pollution problem, DEP and plant operators say. Discrepancies in a log book, a broken fence or a missing sign are all violations.

    “I’ve often thought that regulating a wastewater treatment plant is like regulating coal mines,” Nault said. “When you hear of an accident, it’s not really an indication that the mine was unsafe, it’s just an indication that the mine safety board was doing their job.”

    Nault said he could not recall any major violations during his tenure as plant operator at the Pine Island park. DEP records, however, show stagnant sewage in resident’s yards, water pollution and sludge build-up during his tenure.
    Plants must grow

    After the beaches on Sanibel were closed, in late September environmentalists, residents and city leaders pointed to the Sanibel Bayous Sewage Treatment Facility, a wastewater plant that has a history of violations that include leaking polluted water.

    It was the last privately run plant on Sanibel. Every other home was on the city-owned municipal system. After the public outcry, the owners of the plant sold the facility to the city on Jan. 15. The city plans to dismantle it and connect residents to city sewers.

    Many plant operators agree: The larger the plant, the more strict the regulations, the more efficiently it runs.

    Small-to-medium sized plants found with violations should find a way to hook up to the city or county-run wastewater plants, which have 24-hour staffing and better technology, Nault said.

    “It’s far better if everyone is on a municipal sewer,” said Nault. “It can cover its costs much better.”

    A municipal system can handle an emergency better as well, said Jon Meyer, utilities senior manager with Lee County Utilities. When a spill or leak occurs, a plan is in place and the staff reacts immediately.

    “Everyone knows their role,” Meyer said.

    But joining the municipal sewer may not make financial sense.

    “One of the biggest concerns is they (DEP) would want you to hook up to the city at a cost-prohibitive price,” Gabriel said.

    For those remote neighborhoods with plants that can’t connect to a city- or county-owned sewer, or for the municipal plants found with violations, the only solution is to upgrade the structure, said Tchobanoglous, the UC Davis expert.

    “We need truly an infusion of resources and money into these facilities,” Tchobanoglous said.

    But that’s hard to come by in these days of budget crunching.

    “It mirrors our society on a whole, that is that someone else is going to pay for it,”

    Tchobanoglous said. “The public doesn’t want to spend anything.”

    Young, of the Clean Water Network, said it’s time people adopt a new mind-set.

    “We’re always saying growth is good and we worry where we’ll get water to drink, but there’s not a lot of worry about what we’ll do with our sewage,” Young said.

    “People have no idea. They pay the bill every month and they assume the sewage is taken care of. And that is a false assumption.”

    By Blogger Dr. Mario, at Wednesday, March 26, 2008 9:49:00 AM  

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