EPA Permits Florida to Pollute Freshwater Aquifers

By Donald Sutherland

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, June 11, 2003 (ENS) - Before Christine Todd Whitman resigned from her office as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in May she had decided to sign off on a rulemaking decision drawn up by EPA water administrators declaring Florida exempt from certain provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Published in the Federal Register on May 5, the exemption will permit Florida to legally pollute drinking water aquifers with inadequately treated waste through municipal underground injection control (UIC) wells.

EPA administrators, including Whitman, have been reviewing a problem that arose when the federal agency advised the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) in the late 1970s to initiate a program of disposal of municipal sewage and industrial waste by injection underground into deep injection wells.


Municipal underground injection control well in Florida (Photo courtesy USF Ficus)
A Fortune 500 engineering consulting firm, CH2M Hill, had assured all parties that the injected underground waste effluent would be contained by a geological barrier and would not commingle with drinking water aquifers.

The injected sewage and industrial waste would also harmlessly be disposed of in deep saline aquifers and then migrate into coastal waters, the company said.

Since the EPA gave approval for the underground injection of sewage and industrial waste, more than 120 Class 1 underground injection control wells have been built to service the unfettered growth in south Florida.

Officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection estimate the flow of injected waste at over 400 million gallons daily, but environmental groups contend it is closer to one billion gallons every day.

Now there is a big containment problem.

Monitoring tests conducted by the EPA and the FDEP in the 1990s and again this year have shown the UIC waste is migrating upward into aquifers the region relies on for drinking water.

U.S. Geological Society (USGS) tracer studies of injection wells in the Florida Keys have shown that bacteria, viruses, and nutrient loading from migrating UIC sewage waste are contaminating tourist beaches and destroying the nutrient sensitive, fragile coastal reef ecosystem in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Algae that choke coral, and algal blooms that harm and kill fish and marine mammals, and dying sea grass beds are all associated with nutrient loading from sewage waste.


The health of Carysfort Reef off the coast of Florida has declined in the past 25 years. Corals that were healthy in 1975 are visibly sick by 1985, and dead and broken by 1995. (Photo by Phillip Dustan, College of Charleston courtesy NASA)
Government officials admit these events are occurring where sewage waste injected into Florida's underground sources of drinking water is migrating into coastal waters.

Still, federal and state governments have secured no funding to study the health implications of this contamination - the nation's largest violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

They have not funded studies of the environmental impact of municipal UIC waste migration into coastal waters.

The tourist, recreational, and resort industries have not expressed a concern regarding the economic impact of UIC pollution even though beach closings due to bacteria contamination and harmful algal blooms have increased since the inception of municipal UICs.

Florida's building, housing, and construction industries endorse the continuation of the current sewage disposal process that is less expensive than building advanced wastewater treatment plants with facilities to reuse the treated effluent.

Communities and residents of most of south Florida's counties have not repealed measures authorizing the expansion of municipal injection wells and have not expressed a health concern with the practice.

Only Pinellas County has decided to plug failed UIC wells and replace them with an extensive wastewater reuse program.

All of Florida's government representatives, officials, and agencies have endorsed south Florida's loosely permitted disposal in underground injection control wells.

Although two Democratic state legislators this year proposed legislation to require a stricter accounting of UIC permitting, the proposal was not considered by the legislature.

Florida's UIC municipal waste disposal program is banned in other states because it is viewed as a health and environmental threat.

"There is no short term solution to the municipal Class 1 UIC fluid migration into underground sources of drinking water in Florida," says Nancy Marsh, program manager for EPA Region 4 Ground Water UIC section.

"Municipalities are reliant on these injection wells and they can't be shut down," she says.


Drawing showing an underground injection control well (Image courtesy EPA)
Only two environmental organizations, the Florida Sierra Club and the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation, have mounted a campaign to oppose the nation's largest violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the UIC destruction of Florida's marine ecosystems.

"The Sierra Club's Florida Chapter has been rebuffed by the state in a call for transparency of the state's underground injection control program that would enhance the public right to know," says Alan Farago, the organization's Miami conservation chair.

"Governor [Jeb] Bush and FDEP Secretary [David] Struhs failed to support a proposal which sought simply to account for the massive pollution of underground aquifers in Florida," he says.

To date there are no lawsuits being brought against the EPA, FDEP, or any local utility authority over the contamination of Florida's drinking water supplies.

A regional EPA official who walked out of the rule reversal sessions on Florida's UIC program held at EPA headquarters in Washington, considered the consequences with ENS on condition of anonymity. "The big question is, is the EPA violating the federal law National Environmental Policy Act with this action?" he asked.

The National Environmental Policy Act requires all federal agencies to integrate environmental values in their rulemaking processes. They must consider any environmental impacts of their proposed actions and give reasonable alternatives to those actions. The act also mandates a detailed Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for these rulemaking processes.

The larger question according to the same EPA regional official concerns what legal precedent has been set by this EPA rule change of the Safe Drinking Water Act to accommodate a state's noncompliance with a national law that safeguards the American public and the environment.