Rules and Regs: Septic Systems Blamed for Algae Bloom

In this month’s regulations update, Jacksonville’s unlicensed septic inspector could cost a boy his life, and scientists refute the claim that septic effluent is causing poor water quality in Florida

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When a Florida legislator introduced a bill in early 2017 to require inspections of septic systems when a property is sold, part of the justification for the bill was the contribution of septic tanks to poor water quality in the Indian River Lagoon along Florida’s east coast. No one argues the water quality point, but there is reason to doubt how much septic tanks contribute.

In 2016, there was a massive algae bloom in the St. Lucie River at the southern end of the lagoon. Because of the bloom, St. Lucie County closed its beaches for the first time, manatees died, and the local tourism economy generally took a hit.

The lagoon starts at about the latitude of Orlando and stretches south for about 50 miles along the coast to Port St. Lucie. Experts agree the prime cause of the algae bloom was a discharge from Lake Okeechobee, which takes in fertilizer-rich water flowing off the vegetable farms that cover central Florida. Algae grew there and flowed downstream in rivers and streams until they collected in the lagoon.

The continuing question, reports the TCPalm newspapers, is whether nutrients leaking from septic tanks turned the algae bloom into what more than one news outlet described as a guacamole-like blanket that covers the water.

The TCPalm interviewed three scientists who had differing views on the contributions of septic tanks to the problem. Brian Lapointe at Florida Atlantic University says he took samples during the bloom and found algae were feeding. He maintains septic tank nutrients fed the bloom.

Edward J. Philips of the University of Florida says algae in the lagoon were dying and not feeding. Algae can be found at all depths in a lake, but when they reached the lagoon, they were stressed by the increased salinity, began dying, and floated to the top of the water. Instead of a bloom, the algae mass was concentrated by winds.

Edith Widder, founder and head of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association in Fort Pierce says algae probably didn’t feed on septic tank nutrients. Freshwater from the lake would have floated above the saltier water in the estuary, and that means any nutrients feeding the algae would have come with them in the freshwater from the lake, she says.

As to the Florida Legislature bill requiring septic inspections, it never went anywhere. A committee diluted the bill to require only that a property seller disclose the presence of an onsite system, and it also requires the state to build a database of all properties with onsite systems. That version passed the House, but it died in a state Senate committee.

Young boy dead following alleged negligence by city of Jacksonville, Florida

Following the death of a 3-year-old boy who fell into a septic tank and drowned, a state report suggests the city of Jacksonville, Florida. may have hired an improperly licensed contractor.

Amari Harley died on Oct. 22 after he fell into the tank in Bruce Park during a family birthday party. The city had received complaints about an uncovered tank in the park, and a girl told television station WJAX that she fell into the same tank about two months before Harley.

The TV station subsequently reported that the state Department of Health contacted Environmental Remediation Services, hired by the city to perform maintenance work, and was told the company did not have licensed people on staff. When the station asked the city about the state report, a spokesperson said the company is licensed to repair lift station pumps and dosing tank pumps and met the city’s bid specifications.

An attorney for Harley’s family says the city either did not do its due diligence or knew the contractor was not licensed and hired them anyway. She says the family plans to take legal action against the city.

Suffolk County, New York, proposes bill to require replacing failing cesspools and septic systems

In keeping with a push to control nitrogen in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Suffolk County, New York, is proposing a bill that would require homeowners to replace failing cesspools with a septic system.

Cesspools are widespread in the county, which covers the eastern end of Long Island and includes such wealthy communities as the Hamptons. Since 1973, the county has allowed homeowners to replace a failing cesspool with another cesspool, reports Newsday. County officials estimate that of 360,000 homes not on municipal sewer service, 252,000 have cesspools.

If approved the bill would take effect in 2019 and would affect 5,000 to 9,000 homes each year. The bill would also require liquid waste haulers to report pumpouts to the county. Three or more pumpouts in a year would indicate a failed system. Deputy County Executive Peter Scully says county legislators will probably be asked in 2018 to approve a bill requiring advanced treatment systems for new construction and as replacements for failing systems.

New Jersey Senate passes revocation of septic rule in the Highlands

The New Jersey Legislature in November introduced a resolution to repeal an administrative rule allowing more septic systems, and thus more development, in the New Jersey Highlands.

The rule from the state Department of Environmental Protection allows a higher density of septic systems in ecologically sensitive parts of the Highlands. The region consists of about 800,000 acres of hills, forests and lakes in northwestern New Jersey.

This past summer, the Legislature adopted a resolution saying the rule was contrary to the Highlands Act that protects the region and calling on the department to rescind or replace the rule. But the department refused to act, maintaining that its rule was in line with the Legislature’s intent, according to the news website NJ Spotlight.

In late November, a Senate committee unanimously passed the resolution to revoke the rule. That makes it more likely the full Legislature will vote to revoke the rule by the end of a lame duck session in January.

Colorado counties to require point-of-sale septic inspections

New regulations will give homeowners in three counties more wastewater system choices and require inspections at the time of property sale.

The regulations were adopted in November by the San Juan Basin Public Health Board. It covers La Plata, San Juan and Archuleta counties in the southwestern corner of the state near the New Mexico border.

Under the regulations, tiny homes (typically up to about 400 square feet) may have smaller wastewater systems than traditional homes. Homes using advanced treatment systems may have smaller systems with regular maintenance. Also, homeowners will be required to obtain permits if they intend to use any low-cost remediation on septic systems.

The rules will take effect in January 2018, but the point-of-sale inspection rule will not take effect until January 2019 to allow time to train inspectors, reports the Durango Herald.


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