Florida Wastewater Professionals Push To Avoid Ban On Spreading Septic Tank Waste

Florida wastewater professionals lobby to stop a statewide ban on landspreading septage set for 2016.

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The Florida Onsite Wastewater Association (FOWA) has made big strides in changing attitudes as it tries to avoid a statewide ban on the landspreading of septage. Legislation in 2010 banned the practice effective in 2016. A bill delaying the ban for one year to allow more study of the issue passed the state Senate on a 37-1 vote on the last day of the 2014 legislative session, while its companion bill in the state House was not brought up for a vote.

As one legislator says, many urban lawmakers don’t understand the significance of the bill – 40 percent of septage collected in Florida is currently land applied, according to the state Department of Health.

Protecting water resources is more than a public health issue, according to Roxanne Groover, executive director of FOWA, which has about 500 members. The state’s natural freshwater springs, more than 900 of them, are also an important tourist attraction and the state began a $37 million springs restoration program in 2013.

It looked like the bill to delay the landspreading ban was going to pass. What happened?

Groover: It certainly did look that way. It was heard by committees in both the House and Senate and passed each committee. Unfortunately, politics are politics and the bill died. We’re going to have to go back next session [beginning March 2015].

There were a couple of nice things that came out of it though. It’s more of a positive issue than it was. Going through all those committees was a tremendous opportunity to educate the Legislature and those attending the meetings because there is so much misinformation.

We moved forward quite a bit. People generally realized that this wasn’t something for a blanket rule, it was more of sitting down with counties to see what they need. What they do in Miami is very different than what we do in rural areas. Land application isn’t even a discussion in some areas because there is no land available. In other areas, it’s the only option. More people now realize that.

What are your feelings about achieving a delay?

Groover: I feel comfortable. The bill would have required a study on the issue and the alternatives. Even though it didn’t pass, DEP is moving forward with the study and reached out to FOWA and the Department of Health for help. They realize the importance of consulting the people who are deeply involved in the process.

Is that the biggest issue on your to-do list?

Groover: The springs issue was also big this past session and will be next year. Florida’s waters are very important to us and we tend to talk about the springs because they are so important. But it encompasses so much more, including desalination and surface water. We typically talk more about nitrogen here in Florida, but it’s a nutrient issue. Not just onsite, but all contributors. We’re going to have to stay very aggressive to make sure onsite wastewater doesn’t take a larger portion of the responsibility than we should.

Landspreading and springs protection are always going to be front and center. We are very involved in the legislative process. In order to do that, we have a political action committee to raise campaign funds and our members work hard to use it properly and stay active.

FOWA is a large group. What is the history?

Groover: We started as the Florida Septic Tank Association and celebrated our 40th anniversary in 2013. There weren’t strong regulations or requirements for registration for onsite providers back then. A group of contractors wanted to make sure that our industry was well-represented and that people in the industry were professionals.

We became the Florida Onsite Wastewater Association in 2002 as the industry changed. We moved away from just septic tanks and into things like portable restrooms, alternative drainfield materials and aerobic treatment units.

Our membership reflects that. We have a very diverse membership of those engaged in the manufacturing, installation, repair or maintenance of onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems, along with regulators and firms that service and supply the industry.

I’ve been the executive director for nine years. I’m an engineer by trade and started out with FOWA as the director of engineering and education. I take an active role in the legislation, education and public relations campaigns for the association. Sherrill Parr has been with us for 12 years and she is the director of financial and business management.

What is your role in education?

Groover: FOWA is the primary trainer of master and registered septic tank contractors and Department of Health employees. We’ve also seen quite a few plumbers and engineers involved in our training lately.

FOWA has had a training center since 1999 where we educate the public and professionals on water conservation and wastewater alternatives. Our new Education Building [in Lake Alfred in central Florida] was completed in 2006.  It has a research facility that promotes and showcases a variety of wastewater treatment alternatives.

I also travel a lot, teaching about 50 classes on the road every year. Given today’s economics it makes more sense for me to travel to an area and have 30 people come to a class than it is for them to travel a day or two to take classes in Lake Alfred.

Registered contractors in Florida are required to have 12 continuing education units a year and Masters need 18. Environmental health people need 24 CEUs every two years and we handle their onsite training. We try to put regulatory people and onsite professionals in classes together. Getting them in the same room tends to lead to better discussions and understanding, better rules and regulations, and better installations and maintenance.

In what other ways do you work with the regulators?

Groover: We provide industry experts to all the regulatory panels. We have a primary and alternate on the Research Review and Advisory Panel that has been developing strategies for nitrogen reduction. We have two people and alternates on the Technical Review and Advisory Panel that helps with decisions and rules for onsite wastewater. There is a contractor member who does work in the field and a manufacturing member.

We also have a member and two alternates on the state’s Variance Review and Advisory Committee. Instead of rules being just black and white, there are options to help people move forward when permits are denied. People are very successful in getting variances. It helps that our members understand the technologies and can provide valuable insight to the committee.

It would be nice to keep areas of Florida pristine. We truly want to protect our waters but we also want to bring people to Florida. Sometimes those two conflict. One-third of the wastewater in Florida is treated by onsite systems and it gives us a tremendous responsibility that our members take very seriously every day. FOWA and its members consider themselves a valuable part of Florida. We protect the public and environmental health of the waters by staying committed to providing a safe, economical and proven means of wastewater treatment to its inhabitants. Remember, we fish, swim and play in those waters too.

Reach Roxanne Groover at 863/956-5540 or rgroover@fowaonsite.com.  


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