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Good news! No one reported spills from septic systems. Now, the bad news. Reports have been filtering in over the past two weeks from the Tampa Bay area about spills of untreated or partially treated human waste from sewage treatment plants up and down the Gulf Coast. The first report came from St. Petersburg – 85 million gallons. Within a few days, an updated report from St. Pete’s and more reports from Pinellas County, Largo, and Clearwater brought those numbers up to 135 million, then to 160 million, finally topping out at a total of 280 million gallons. This past week, a very delayed report from the Tallahassee area reveals a back-up generator at a sewage plant failed during the power outage, causing a million and a half gallons to be dumped on land adjacent to the plant.

In addition to the serious health risks reported on in our previous Sludge Report, there are reports of smelly marinas, and fishing charter captains who say they still take tourists out for a spin, but they are recommending “catch and release.” Everyone is watching for red tides, vanishing scallop beds, and sick fish. In St. Pete, state wildlife officials are investigating the death of 45 of the area’s 115 fledgling black skimmers, a nearly endangered species, to determine if the sewage spill is the cause of death.

Why is this happening? Infiltration is the primary cause. Heavy rains push water into sewer lines increasing by millions of gallons the volume sent to the treatment plant, which is then overwhelmed. The only remedy is to dump the contents. Sometimes, as with Hermine, the increased volume causes sewage back up into streets. This makes its way into the storm sewers and those typically dump into various water bodies.

For years, we have talked about infiltration and its opposing condition, exfiltration. It stands to reason, if sewer infrastructure is subject to infiltration (water entering sewer pipes), then it is also subject to exfiltration (effluent exiting sewer pipes). In the Sludge Report archives, you will find a statistic that says, each and every day, depending on the age of the sewer pipes, ten to forty percent of the contents will leak out into the ground and groundwater before it ever reaches the sewer treatment plant. By means of a simple population calculation, sewers are out-polluting septic systems by a minimum factor of 22:1. The average lifespan of a sewer pipe is 40-50 years. In Tampa, one official remarked that a lot of the “infrastructure” is over 100 years old!

mactec-pie-chartWhy do we care about infiltration and exfiltration? What does this have to do with septic systems? There are Basin Management Action Plan meetings taking place all over the state. The BMAP Advisory Committee Members will decide what remediation steps will be taken to reduce nitrogen entering groundwater from your septic system. Each BMAP has a pie chart identifying each segment contributing nitrogen to the springs and watersheds. No pie chart has a segment for exfiltration! If exfiltration were included in the calculations, the septic contribution segment of every pie chart would be significantly reduced! That’s been largely ignored and plans are moving forward to throw lots of your tax dollars and personal dollars at fixing the problem, when it’s actually the pie chart that needs remediation.

Your mission is (1) identify the BMAP in your area. (2) go to the BMAP meetings (3) share information with your neighbors (4) make sure accurate and credible science supports the proposed remediation plan, and that the proposed solutions will produce results.

My personal note to you…It’s time to ask questions. It’s always time to make sure the limited financial resources of our citizens, our state, our agencies, and local municipalities are being spent wisely. If you have ever attended a pre-session legislative delegation meeting, you were probably stunned as I was by the number of petitioners (citizens and local human services organizations) with desperate financial needs so they can serve desperate populations of our state. We must carefully weigh our priorities, as there is never enough money to do it all. Just as families set spending priorities, so must our legislators and agencies. We have a moral and financial obligation to make sure we do what matters most.