It’s easy to get bogged down in the details and overlook or forget about the conflicting statements, science, and incidents that have occurred over the ten years I’ve been following the septic system issues. To understand anything about why this has been such a misguided mess of mandates, legislative wrestling, and wasted taxpayer dollars you must go back to the source – the Wekiva Parkway Act, 2004.
Question 1. What does building a freeway have to do with septic systems? The answer is any time a major road is built, development follows. The parkway cut through land identified by the environmental community as ecologically sensitive, sparsely populated rural land, unconnected to urban sewers, therefore, totally dependent on septic systems.
Question 2. If the state agrees, as it did in the Wekiva Parkway Act, to protect sensitive land surrounding the Parkway, how will you prevent development? The answer is two-fold. (1) Buy up land and set it aside for conservation. (2) Make it impossible to install new septic systems.
Question 3. How do you make it impossible to install conventional septic systems? Again, the answer is two-fold. (1) By any means possible, convince the public, legislators, and the media that septic systems are bad because they “leak” harmful nutrients into waterways, groundwater, and springs. (2) Impose rules that make septic systems so complex, expensive, and disruptive, no family can afford them or live with them.
Question 4. How do we know Questions 1, 2, and 3 are true? Because ten years of conflicting statements, conflicting science, and unjustifiable bureaucratic actions point to the fact that none of it makes any sense. And, when things don’t make sense, follow the money.
CONFLICT: Environmental Groups insisted from the beginning that nitrogen from septic systems is the primary source of nitrogen in springs and waterways that caused nuisance algae and algae blooms. Then, Constitutional Amendment One passes. Residents were told this amendment would guarantee money would be available to buy more conservation land. Yes, some of the Amendment One money has gone to funding new land purchases, but the legislature has also directed dollars to restoration projects like septic to sewer conversions.
Last fall, Robert Knight, a senior spokesperson for the “premier” environmental group, The Howard T. Odom Institute, published an opinion in the Gainesville Sun. Obviously upset about how Amendment One money was being allocated, he said “septic to sewer conversions will not solve the problems that plague the springs and waterways.” I printed that article because I was taken aback that Mr. Knight and I actually agreed! Curiously, that article was deleted from the Gainesville Sun archives.
News Note: In the meantime, Earth Justice filed and won a lawsuit against the State of Florida claiming that the legislature has misappropriated Amendment 1 funding. What does that mean to you, the homeowner? It means, contrary to promises of financial assistance from FL Dept. of Environmental Protection, there will not be any money available to help you with the cost of converting your conventional septic system to a nitrogen reducing system or a sewer as mandated by the FDEP Springs Protection Basin Management Action Plan. The state is planning to counter-sue, but funding is gone until this is resolved.
In an interview after the Amendment 1 lawsuit was decided, David Guest, lead lawyer for Earth Justice, declares “the only way to protect the Springs is to buy up all the land around them.” The truth comes out in moments like these…..so, if your home is anywhere near a spring, you are a target.
CONFLICT: Dept. of Health (DOH), Bureau of On-site Sewage gets $5 million dollars from the legislature with the directive to develop passive nitrogen reducing alternatives for conventional septic systems. DOH responded by giving new meaning to the word “passive”. The new DOH definition is: “no more than one-pump and has nitrogen reducing media.” DOH avoided testing and approving commercially available and innovative passive products. The Bureau’s final report states plainly they chose not to include passive technologies in the study. Instead DOH spent the $5 million dollars developing their own “advanced” septic systems with electrically operated pumps, chambers and nitrogen reducing media. DOH called them passive – the dictionary does not. The money is gone. None of the systems DOH invented were approved for use. The legislature and homeowners never did get what they asked for or paid for. The last-minute DOH approval of a “woodchip” passive system turned out to be non-viable, unaffordable option for most homeowners. See previous Sludge Report on the Woodchip System
CONFLICT: The Bureau’s “Advanced” septic systems, those that remove nitrogen and are incorporated into the various BMAP plans, are engineered systems that require yearly permit fees paid to the Bureau – $100-200 per year. With 2.5 million septic systems in the state, the DOH stands to corral a hefty amount of annual revenue it didn’t have before – $250-500 million. DOH has been registering a huge number of new contractors – who will have a guaranteed annual income from the required maintenance contracts. Just in the Wekiva Priority Focus Area, maintenance contracts for the BMAP-mandated nitrogen reducing systems will generate about $7 million annually. Follow the money.
CONFLICT: FDEP is pushing forward with a Septic System Remediation Incentive Program 1, encouraging homeowners in the Springs Protection Priority Focus Areas to voluntarily convert to a nitrogen reducing system approved by FDOH. It’s unclear whether FDEP is using the $50 million Amendment One money appropriated last year to fund this incentive program or depending on a new 2019 appropriation. What is clear, because of the Earth Justice lawsuit, there is no funding next year unless the court case is reversed.
Be aware that the program pays reimbursement directly to the contractor that installs it. The installer can be either a licensed contractor or even a plumber! The “terms and conditions” require that FDEP approve the application before work begins, but does not guarantee funding will be available. At the top of the FDEP Press Release it states, “Septic Upgrade Incentive Program will help protect the environment by reducing excessive nutrients in Florida’s springs.” However, at the bottom of the “terms and conditions” 2 page, FDEP states “the Department does not endorse or guarantee the functionality of any nitrogen-reducing feature purchased or installed under this program.” 3 In the FDOH rules governing the advanced, nitrogen-reducing systems, none of them will be tested for nitrogen removal once they are installed.
With all the disclaimers and rules in place, no one will ever know if the millions and millions invested in nitrogen reduction produced a benefit to the springs.
Then there is the homeowner’s disclaimer form that must be submitted. It states “FDEP is not responsible for any ongoing costs or maintenance related to the system and FDEP does not endorse, warrant or guarantee the work of the installer. Further, FDEP is not liable to the homeowner for any portion of an invoice from the installer which is not paid due to loss of funding!
In a nutshell, you are not given any protection, and neither is the environment. If you are a member of an environmental group, you need to ask sincere questions about the “approved” solutions. Next issue of The Sludge Report will be devoted to assessing the reports that have been published regarding their performance.
If you are a homeowner thinking of participating in FDEP’s septic conversion incentive program – Buyer Beware. The installation and funding risks are on your shoulders. You must be sure you can afford the on-going costs of owning one of these systems. Neither FDEP or FDOH has provided homeowners with estimates of the on-going costs of operation/maintenance/repair of the nitrogen-reducing systems. The program seems to put protections in place for everyone but you.
In case anyone was wondering – As editor of this report and activist on behalf of homeowners, I have never asked for or taken any money for advertising, sponsorship or in-kind compensation for any expenses including travel, office supplies, website expenses, personal expenses, etc. I do not accept donations from homeowners. This has been a deliberate choice so that trust can be established and maintained with homeowners, elected and unelected officials, and all other individuals, companies, organizations or groups that I have been in touch with over the years. Thank you to all who have trusted, helped, and tried to help without compensation from me! Further, opinions evolve after extensive research and are posted to benefit only one group – homeowners.