October 1, 2019
Dr. Thomas Frazer, Chief Science Officer
3900 Commonwealth Blvd.
Douglas Bldg., MS #23
Tallahassee FL 32399
SUBJECT: Public Comment – Blue Green Algae Task Force and Septic Systems
Dear Dr. Frazer,
I have listened to the entire video of the Task Force Meeting that took place in Ft. Pierce. I regret I was unable to attend and participate in the public comment time. That said, three minutes would not have been enough time to address critical issues before you. Before I present my thoughts on the Task Force meeting, I feel it is important to present a short summary of who I am and why the observations I will make about subject of septic systems have reasonable credibility.
For the past 10 years I have been attending meetings held about septic systems, interacting with State legislators, county officials, as well as agency officials in FDEP & FDOH. I have attended all the Wekiva Basin Commission meetings, the Wekiva Aquatic Preserve meetings, and was actively involved in the Wekiva Springs FDEP OSTDS Advisory Committee. Mr. Drew Bartlett contacted me to help develop the format and scope of a two-year long homeowner field study. I contacted homeowners in three counties and provided FDEP the names of 20 homeowners willing to have septic systems on their property tested for nitrogen. My home was one of those tested. I have also committed hundreds of hours of time to personally researching relevant agency scientific and policy documents, reviewing academic research and reaching out to industry and academic professionals in order to publish information important to citizens and elected officials throughout the State of Florida. I have not received compensation of any kind, nor am I a registered lobbyist.
Homeowners do not have a lobbyist. If legislators and bureaucrats do not consider homeowner concerns, we have no representation in matters that have consequences on our lives and financial well-being. My website is http://thesludgereport.org
My purpose has been to advocate on behalf of homeowners who are substantially impacted by septic system rules, regulations, and mandates and to make legislators, and this Task Force, aware of issues and consequences imbedded in BMAP plans and proposed legislation. From the beginning of this engagement and advocacy, homeowners have asked for three things common to any strategic planning effort. These three things are addressed in this communication to you:
ADEQUATE SCIENCE COST-EFFECTIVE, PROVEN SOLUTIONS RETURN ON INVESTMENT
It is obvious that without adequate science and cost/effective and proven solutions, there can be no return on investment to our environment. Rightly, you and your team asked difficult and serious questions about all three aspects which I will try to expand on in this document, providing you with examples of our concerns and problems in each area of focus. As you said during the Ft. Pierce meeting, “We must get the most out of our investments.” I agree wholeheartedly.
“How representative are the studies?” Dr. Frazier
“Do we have data on loading?” Dr. Valerie Paul
“70% is agriculture related and 20% is septic systems, is spending 50% on septic systems a wise effort? We must get the proportions right.” Dr. Michael Parsons
Regarding TN – “We must know the species of Nitrogen to know the drivers” – Dr. Michael Parsons
• In 2008, based on three grab samples, one in each of three counties, the Dept. of Health Bureau of On-site Sewage declared nitrogen from septic systems a significant source of nitrogen in the Wekiva River and embarked on rule-making to force 55,000 Wekiva Basin septic owners to immediately convert to Performance Based Treatment Systems. The TRAP committee charged with Bureau rule oversight voted “NO” unanimously citing that the rule was unjustifiable and the PBTS “solution” non-viable, but their recommendations and vote were ignored by the Bureau.
• That “science” immediately became part of the BMAP non-point source pie chart. Further, without any additional studies or scientific justification, that load calculation continued to increase for septic systems from an initial 19% to 29%. In 2016, FDEP initiated a homeowner site study involving 12 homes in the Wekiva Study Area. Although that study indicated significant nitrogen reduction in the soil within 5-13 ft. below drainfields, FDEP’s NSILT computer model only accepts data collected at 24” below the drainfield. The load reductions required in the Wekiva BMAP are not based on what reaches groundwater. They are based on the Bureau’s installation code compliance. I am not aware of any other site-specific studies performed in the 12 other springs protection BMAP’s.
• All non-point sources are not accounted for in the Wekiva BMAP, or as far as I know, in any other BMAP. In 2009, FDEP Wekiva BMAP representatives acknowledged that exfiltration from municipal and private utility sewer lines should be included in the non-point source calculations. This source was also acknowledged in a report by Hazen & Sawyer, a respected environmental engineering firm, indicating that if exfiltration were included in the sourcing pie chart, the contribution from septic systems would be reduced to near zero. FDEP identifies sewer pipes as a “transport”, not a “source” of nutrient contamination, and as a result does not include this in the source allocation. This is a semantics argument that skews the “science” and will result in a misallocation of funding and little or no return on investment. Industry sources cite that 10-40% of sewer pipe content is lost to exfiltration to ground and groundwater before it reaches the wastewater treatment plant. “Language” is not an argument based on the reality of human waste as a non-point source. Excluding this source skews the entire burden of remediation and results toward septic systems.
• Repeatedly, fertilizer is identified as a 70% source of nitrogen in springs and waterways. However, in the BMAP source allocations, that 70% is composed of many small, industry-specific segments whose individual contributions are less than the 20% figure cited in the 2016 Springs Protection Act. Thus, these small contributors are judged as compliant if suggested Best Management Practices are followed. Mandates only apply to septic systems, which makes reaching target springs concentrations virtually impossible as the 20% statutory threshold of the presumed problem – the low hanging fruit – is being remediated.
• St. Johns Water Management District provided $3,000,000 in a grant to the University of Florida to conduct research that would determine the most causative factors of algae impairment in springs and waterways. The CRISP report named velocity (springs flow), not the presence of nitrogen, as the single most determining factor in the growth of nuisance algae in “impaired” or affected streams. SJWMD also provided $1,000,000 in a grant to Dr. Thomas Belanger, professor of Marine Science at Florida International University. His mandate was to conduct a site-specific study of 16 septic systems located on canals in the Indian River Lagoon area. His findings concluded that, unless the systems were actively failing, the systems were “not the smoking gun” everyone thinks they are. Both studies sit collecting dust in the SJWMD library.
• Wekiva Springs target nitrogen (TN) level has been set at .286 mg/liter. FDEP will be sampling the spring vent against this target number to determine if remediation actions are effective. Three huge problems with this methodology.
(1) .286 is an arbitrary target number chosen by FDEP as a concentration “likely to prevent harm.” This is stated in a 2014 Wekiva BMAP plan which described the Wekiva River in “excellent condition” with nitrogen concentrations in the 1-2 mg/liter range. It is a “perfect world” target number that is essentially unachievable, which will lead to additional rounds of costly, inconsequential mandates.
(2) Results of septic system remediation cannot be validated by sampling TN from a spring vent which collects nutrients from the contributions of an entire springshed and is subject to weather and input sources such as injection wells, rapid infiltration basins, storm water infrastructure, “transport” sewer pipes, etc. These are non-point sources beyond any septic system owner’s control.
(3) TN is not an element that can identify the source of the nitrogen. It is a composite number that makes no distinction between organic and inorganic sources of nitrogen. Therefore, sampling TN is an unscientific method of determining if septic system remediation efforts are successful.
COST EFFECTIVE SOLUTIONS
We must have “well proven prevention methods.” Dr. Valerie Paul
“Lab experiment is different than the real world.” Dr. Wendy Graham
“Demonstrating effectiveness is up the candidate vendors.” Dr. Michael Parsons
“Maintenance is a big issue. Why are they necessary.” Dr. Valerie Paul
• If traditional sewers are not installed to replace septic systems in BMAP Priority Focus Areas, the only alternative homeowners have is to choose an “advanced” system from the DOH list of NSF-245 certified systems. This list shows NSF-245 systems provide an average 50% reduction in the tank, prior to release of waste to the drainfield, with an additional 15% reduction provided by the drainfield. Unfortunately, NSF-245 is an above ground laboratory certification process that uses a slurry 50% the strength of the average household waste. Simple math – a 50% reduction of 50% normal strength slurry is a 25% reduction. Post-installation testing for nitrogen reduction performance has been conducted in the Keys by DOH, in Wakulla County by FDEP, and in numerous other counties, facilities and states. Consistently, an average of 75% of these systems fail to provide promised nutrient reductions and do not perform any better than a conventional tank and drainfield. Dr. Roeder stated a conventional tank and drainfield removes 50% of the nitrogen and no further attenuation is assumed. Scientific journals and a robust study of nitrogen transport in Northwest Orange WWTP rapid infiltration basins report significant reduction is provided by soil, even sandy soil, particularly at the saturation point where nitrogen reaches groundwater. The 2016 FDEP Wekiva homeowner study also demonstrated this.
• From 2008 through 2015, the State Legislature approved $5,000,000 of funding for a DOH Bureau of Onsite Sewage study. The stated legislative intent was to facilitate development and availability of innovative, passive, nitrogen reducing technologies. The Bureau interpreted “innovative” to mean no system would be tested that did not already have the Bureau’s innovative status approval. This eliminated known and promising technologies from the study, and companies seeking innovative status from the Bureau experienced many roadblocks. The Bureau also interpreted “passive” to mean the system would have no more than one-pump. The Bureau interpreted “develop” to mean become a developer of nitrogen-reducing system products. The study failed to meet legislative intent and to date, there are no workable passive technologies available to the homeowner. The In-Ground Nitrogen Reducing Biofilter (INRB) system referred to by Dr. Roeder has not been subjected to the same innovative approval testing process as DOH requires of all other technologies seeking to enter the market.
• Costs the homeowner will be required to absorb with “advanced” systems have been grossly understated, and DOH has never collected repair/replacement data. Consistently, the average initial capital cost of $20,000 and bi-annual permit/inspection fees are spoken of as the only cost. That is a completely wrong assumption. Advanced systems are highly complex, electro-mechanical devices operating 24-7. Repairs at the homeowner’s expense are frequent and costly. The homeowner “do and don’t” list is extensive and typically renders the manufacturer’s warranty null and void for most repairs. Testimony from homeowners, contractors, public comments at RRAC, TRAP, and BMAP meetings all attest to these added costs. Further, units this complex will most likely have a life expectancy of about ten years. Actual costs therefore are not $20,000, but $40,000 – plus the estimated annual cost of approximately $1,500 per year for maintenance, repairs, and fees. Real costs over a 20-year period are, therefore, are in the $55K-70K range. BMAP estimates Advanced Systems remove three additional pounds of nitrogen per year over a conventional system. BMAP plans say sewers remove all nitrogen. Comparatively, the cost of gravity sewers is a bargain and twice as effective. It is important to realize that using one less bag of fertilizer per year accomplishes the same reduction at no cost to the homeowner or the State.
• Power outages are a common occurrence in Florida. Installing advanced systems or low pressure, electrically powered grinder sewers will require that families vacate their homes within 24 hours of a widespread power outage because they will not have basic sewage treatment. Most advanced systems will require that a technician restart the device, especially if the outage lasts more than a few days. Dr. Roeder stated in the Ft. Pierce meeting that any NSF-245 system had to have at least one maintenance entity in the state. On it’s face, this is ludicrous and will deny residents the use of their homes for days or weeks in the event of a widespread weather-related outage. The notion that hundreds or thousands of advanced systems will have access to service at the same time forces a segment of our population to be treated very differently, without the same safeguards and protections as the rest of the population. Both advanced systems and grinder sewers put the health of our citizens at risk. Homes are at risk of damage from system backup and shelter in place will not be an option.
• Maintenance is indeed a huge issue when advanced systems, or electrically powered systems of any kind have been installed. In the Keys, in Charlotte County, and on Sanibel/Captiva islands, contractors have abandoned service contracts because the advanced systems are so maintenance-intensive, it is unprofitable to provide service. Over the years, legislators, vendors and Dr. Roeder in his Task Force presentation have suggested Responsible Maintenance Entities (RME) or Special Purpose Governments (SPG) are the answer to supporting advanced system deployment. This acknowledges that advanced systems and distributed sewer systems are essentially undependable and cannot be expected to provide environmental benefit without constant attention to maintenance. Unfortunately, neither RME’s or SPG’s fall under the oversight of the Public Service Commission which is intended to safeguard the public from unjustifiable rate hikes and respond to service complaints from the public when essential services such as water and wastewater are involved. In the 2019 Associated Industries of Florida (AIF) Water Forum meeting, SPG’s were touted to relieve utility providers of liability or any responsibility for service, rates, failure, or performance issues. This scenario supports the business model of vendors of advanced systems or “distributed sewers” but does not provide the same cost and service protections given every other resident using sewers. This special treatment is essentially discriminatory. It creates an extra layer of bureaucracy and cost and dismisses citizen and environmental accountability.
• Unintended consequences are numerous and must be examined for their financial impact as well as for their impact on the well-being of the State’s citizens and the environment. Unintended consequences named here exist because of lack of full disclosure by our agencies. This explains why deed declarations are required when advanced or INRB systems are deployed!
(1) Home values have dropped precipitously in areas where advanced systems are installed. This affects property tax revenues and extracts from homeowners the asset value of their homes. It underscores the reality that the public will not accept a restricted lifestyle or the unknown costs of ownership imposed on them by advanced septic systems.
(2) An FDEP study of advanced systems in Wakulla County recorded unacceptable operational noise levels, system alarms triggering frequently, and odor issues where advanced systems were deployed close to each other, affecting the livability of whole neighborhoods. The potential to irrevocably damage the homeowners’ ability to sell or live comfortably in their homes is real – so is the probability of reducing whole neighborhoods to a blighted condition.
(3) Advanced systems failures can send raw sewage into drainfields causing environmental damage and drainfield failure.
(4) Cleaning products, medications, chemotherapy, guests, number of laundry loads, and host of other “average family” situations will void warranties and cause system malfunction. These situations negate the nitrogen reducing capabilities of advanced systems or “distributed sewers” which rely on regulated dosing or biological consistency to perform. For this reason, the industry does not recommend large scale deployment of advanced systems to accomplish the objective of environmental protection.
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
Unfortunately, the science and the solutions regarding nitrogen and septic systems are seriously flawed. The scenario defined in BMAP that forces the use advanced systems in areas where sewers are not deployed is doomed to failure given the performance track record and uncontrolled costs and unintended consequences associated with their use. The combination of inadequate science and predictable, costly problems associated with Advanced Nitrogen Reducing Septic Systems means we cannot expect a return on investment. It does not matter whether the investment is made from State coffers or the homeowner’s pocket. Return on Investment is defined as a healthier ecosystem accomplished as a result of dollars spent on intervention.
Obviously, the best return on investment for septic system remediation is provided by doing two things:
(1) Validate need using robust, statistically sound data and scientific analysis. Test to groundwater and include all parameters likely to impact environmentally sensitive areas. Rank sensitive areas according to the analysis and fund worst first.
(2) Immediately prioritize and fund extending municipal, gravity-fed sewers to densely populated areas in the Priority Focus Areas of the BMAP plans, especially in areas where the utility management and physical infrastructure is already in place to absorb more customers. This focus will immediately reduce the number of septic systems contributing nutrients and reduce the cumulative impact of septic systems to a mere fraction of the PFA nutrient contribution estimated in BMAP plans.
CONCLUSION: As stated in the BMAP plans, gravity sewers are the most effective means of mitigating whatever amount of nitrogen from septic systems is impacting our springs and surface waters. It’s also the most affordable and protects home values. However, septic system owners have a right to expect some semblance of fairness and predictability with conversions imminent. All septic owners should be granted “grandfather” status until such time as utility-owned gravity sewers are on the drawing board and slated for installation. Providing sewers is a time and money consuming process that may not lend itself to the time frames spelled out in BMAP plans.
Therefore, it is imperative to make sure septic owners are not denied the use of their property or forced into installing non-performing advanced treatment systems while sewer plans unfold and adequate funding is available. At no time should the Dept. of Health be allowed to withhold repair permits from homeowners, not yet on the sewer schedule, who have a legitimate permit to own and operate a conventional septic system.
Thank you for taking the time to read the information provided. I hope it is helpful. I am available at your convenience to discuss any aspect of this document or provide more information.
Respectfully submitted by:
Andrea Samson, Editor: The Sludge Report
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