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Nancy Smith

Sewage Bills Create a Stink in the Brevard Delegation

April 8, 2019 - 9:00am
Raw sewage polluting a waterway
Raw sewage polluting a waterway

We aren't going to fix Florida's waterways until we stop loading them up with poop. Ask any biologist. Failing septic tanks and broken municipal sewer pipes have galvanized the state’s environmental discourse.

So, how come we're here now with less than three weeks left in the 2019 legislative session, yet we don't have a single piece of significant sewage-be-gone legislation anywhere near the finish line?

The simple answer: Dissension among legislators. 

Trouble in River City, a.k.a. District 17 -- the wider Brevard County area. 

I Beg to DifferIt's where Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Rockledge, and Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, both have bold sewage bills in the mix -- hers, Senate Bill 1758; his, House Bill 141.

Fine's passionate, now-famous closing on 141 before the March 12 Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee meeting brought the severity of the raw sewage spills home, particularly in the Indian River Lagoon, but statewide, too. It's a popular fix for the raw sewage spills, attractive in its simplicity.

Randy Fine's closing

“The state has an important role in both financially supporting (lagoon) recovery and guiding local governments to get the job done. My legislation will do both -- provide the incentive of $50 million a year in matching funds to support Indian River Lagoon restoration and dramatically increase penalties for illegal spills caused by lack of system maintenance."

HB 141 would require a written notice to be sent to residents by mail every time there's a spill, and the note would provide the names and phone numbers of the authorities responsible for the plant's oversight. The bill would also "require a $2 fee for every gallon of raw sewage released, Fine said.

But HB 141 is going nowhere. 

Debbie Mayfield
Debbie Mayfield
Mayfield calls the shots. She's chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment, and General Government. And Mayfield says no to 141, which, she says, 1) narrowly concentrates on only one impaired waterway (the Indian River Lagoon); 2) requires a recurring $50 million annually; and 3) does not have a companion bill in the Senate. 

Nor has Mayfield scheduled Sen. Gayle Harrell's Senate Bill 368, which is actually legislation Mayfield wrote and tried unsuccessfully to pass last year. Harrell’s bill was originally intended to take $50 million a year from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund (LATF) and set it aside for environmental improvements to the Indian River Lagoon. It included land acquisition, but also matching grants to utilities for septic-to-sewage conversion and upgrades meant to halt pollutants from flowing into the lagoon. But money is the problem. The LATF is strictly hands off for anything but land acquisition.

Joe Gruters' Senate Bill 216 once was a companion bill for Fine's HB 141, but Mayfield claims the Sarasota Republican's proposal, after an early strike-all, now primarily deals with penalties for utilities to pay $1 fines for each gallon of discharge or $2 per discharge to upgrade or replace sewage plants causing the spills. The utilities also would have to make public notifications of such spills within 24 hours. It doesn't qualify as a companion, she said.

Mayfield says her bill, The Clean Waterways Act, though an 11th hour filing, is necessarily larger in scope than Fine's. "We have an $18.4 billion deficit in water upgrades in this state. This is a bigger picture issue than the Indian River Lagoon. It's statewide, and that's how we have to think." 

Will there be enough time, considering Mayfield lacks a House sponsor?

"Holly Raschein is going to do the companion bill," she said. "She may do it as a committee bill, but in any event, we have time" Raschein, R-Key Largo, is chair of the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. 

Change could be slow out of the gate with Mayfield's bill. First, the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health will have to produce a legislative report on the impacts of transferring septic systems to sewer systems -- all with BMaps, or Basin Management Action Plans. (A BMap is a "blueprint" for restoring impaired waters by reducing pollutant loadings established in a Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL.)

In her bill, Mayfield said, the most impaired counties would be first in having to produce a BMap showing how they're going to move from septic tanks to sewers.

But what seems wrong with Mayfield's bill is, Florida dumps hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage annually into its coastal waters, which have turned into pathogen contaminated dead zones. The BMaps aren't the regulatory avenue to mitigate the sewage dumping problem, because they address "average annual loads" from the past, while our aging infrastructure routinely fails under the burden of rapid population growth. 

The Fine/Gruters bills provide a direct regulatory stick to provide support for local municipalities to fix their current multi-million- or multi-billion-dollar waste water infrastructure problems. Any legislation short of this will be status quo for Florida's coastal waters.

While I compliment the senator for looking at the bigger picture, I hope she reconsiders her decision and allows her committee to hear the Fine/Gruters' bill. 

In January, a Senate subcommittee heard testimony from Brian E. Lapointe, a Ph.D. research professor at Florida Atlantic University who has done more fecal coliform sampling of Florida waters than any other scientist. Lapointe designated septic tanks “the most important and urgent issue facing our state” and called for “a Manhattan Project” to “go to war against algae.”

In his article "Booms and Blooms", in the September 2018 edition of Water and Wastes Digest, Lapointe says, "The fight against algae is the fight for Florida’s future." 

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith


We must realize that sewer and septic are part of the problem. Also, understand who funds Dr. LaPointe's research. He points to septic systems... However, his funding is from utilities. He is a hired gun to point fingers. A bad septic system is 300 gallons per day. A leaking sewer system is millions of gallons per day. So, once you start to follow the money; and you will see who has a voice. Now, septic systems need to be funded, as they are part of the solution. However, the septic to sewer option is viable in many instances. However, septic systems can be managed and operated if there was a mechanism for funding and management. There are hybrid septic systems that treat nitrogen. Properly, designed, installed, and maintained septic systems treat wastewater very well.

1. Unchecked growth leads to unregulated development. 2. Growth for the sake of "job creation" leads to more population growth. 3. Growth never pays for itself. Time to hang the no vacancy sign up and clean up the current mess before allowing g more population increase and development. Severe impact fees are a must.

The developers are at fault. They need to be assessed for the costs of rebuilding their under-constructed systems, and municipalities are in on the fix to push these costs onto taxpayers. Cogent planning and zoning along with construction performance BONDS is the only way to keep accountability going forward.

and we sure as shit aren't going to make a difference by ignoring the 80+% of nutrient loading into the lake from agricultural land.

Your post is absurd on a lot of levels. But let's just start with the fact that Lake Okeechobee and ag runoff has nothing to do with polluting the northern reaches of the Indian River Lagoon. Or the springs. Or the Suwannee River. Or dozens of other Florida waterways where algae is choking the crap out of the water. But fecal coliform is everywhere, Z.

Quite clever of Mr. Fine to force the cost of failing sewer systems (via storms etc) dumping overflow into the Lagoon back on the municipalities (where arguably it should be) . I (and I am sure other voters that dont live near the lagoon) have heard "loads" of discussion of how polluted the lagoon is. While everybody was getting on this bandwagon, the Mayor of Palm Bay woke up in a City Council meeting last month and realized that these fines would be a liability of his municipality and be forced upon his taxpayers (the same taxpayers clamoring for road repair etc) Ironic, that in a fit of euphoria, the taxpayers urged their State Legislators to fine them. The other danger here, is that there are many private residential septic tanks that work well and are not near any waterway, those should not be swept up in some global regulation to clean up the lagoon. Stop adjacent run-off into the lagoon, fix your municipal sewage system, before you come inland to fix something that isn't broken. If you are one of these inland properties that have a septic tank and are not near a waterway, Id suggest that you write your state legislator and tell them not to regulate your septic system, otherwise you are going to wake up one morning to find the state legislators have gone home, and you'll be compelled to have your septic system inspected to some standard and fined if you don't comply.

Agree totally! Besides, how much sense does it make to hook up septic systems to an already failing infrastructure or one that dumps partially treated, or untreated "stuff" into the waterways when it is overloaded from rain?? Question to Dr. LaPointe - Does the biological signature of sewer and storm water fecal matter differ from that of fecal matter from septic systems??" Pretty sure it's impossible to identify the source of bacteria by looking at the presence of bacteria.

To quote the previous comment before you posted: "Local Leaders might have to start implementing dreaded "IMPACT FEES ON DEVELOPERS" to help pay for THE IMPACT OF NEW DEVELOPMENT ON THE ENVIRONMENT." Please note this is a funding resource that municipalities seem to constantly overlook. Has anyone reading this come across any poor developers lately? Your second point is excellent - Why should people who have septic systems that are far removed from waterways get caught up in baseless red tape and expense? Seems grossly unfair.

It's so easy to create a sense of confusion with this issue by mixing metaphors and comparing apples to oranges. Pity the people on the receiving end of the runoff from Lake Okeechobee (clearly agricultural runoff) poisoning their part of Eastern Florida. I doubt they would think fixing septic tanks is the higher priority. Pity the people in Brevard whose municipal sewage systems "accidentally self-destructed" from lack of upkeep. I doubt any of them would prioritize septic upgrades. Randy Fine has the common sense to grasp the bull by the horns on this issue, by FORCING those responsible for the MOST SIGNIFICANT sources of environmental damage to take the heat. If they don't the voters will literally kill them politically. Fine them! Mr Fine says FINE THEM A SIGNIFICANT, FIXED AMOUNT PER INCIDENT. How could anyone argue against that, or obstruct the implementation of such a logical solution? Then he goes on to propose that, within reason, those same entities receive matching fund assistance if they wish to fix the probable sources of potential problems. Seems about as fair and reasonable a solution as anyone could come up with! So Local Leaders might have to start implementing dreaded "IMPACT FEES ON DEVELOPERS" to help pay for THE IMPACT OF NEW DEVELOPMENT ON THE ENVIRONMENT. Seems to me that standing in the way of this proposed solution by trying to include other issues (which require other fixes) so that the public is left with a cauldron of swirling toxic political crud, is what is going on here. It's not hard to see there are multiple fixes needed. Lets prioritize what we CAN DO NOW over what we NEED TO DO IN THE NEAR FUTURE, and start this stream of positive energy and awareness going down the tracks like responsible adults rather than as tricky self-serving spoiled brats.

I really like your last words-" Lets prioritize what we CAN DO NOW over what we NEED TO DO IN THE NEAR FUTURE, and start this stream of positive energy and awareness going down the tracks like responsible adults rather than as tricky self-serving spoiled brats."- as long as a bad problem is not an excuse for some to line their pockets, lets put it on the table, is a Fine some alternative to just shutting them down, driving them out of business in Florida, seeking clarity,

Over 80% of the offending poop comes from the hineys of Democrats. Yet it's so funny that it's blaimed on Republicans every election cycle.

What is it that the so called science based people don't understand? Wastewater treatment plants that do not treat to AWT standards and direct discharge into surface waters are dumping Nitrogen and Phosphorus and creating a breeding ground for algal growth. Septic systems, even conventional ones, do not directly discharge to surface waters. It takes open minds to solve complex problems.

Septic systems on tiny lots close to waterways are degrading the waterways ... and injection wells used to pump partially-treated effluent from sewage systems into the aquifer are polluting the water in the aquifer. Death by hanging or by firing squad?

Please post any articles, links, and/or documents that list any and all locations of "partially-treated effluent" being pumped into the "the aquifer".

Wastewater injection wells are required to inject below all drinking water aquifers and below a confining layer that separates the two. Injection wastes rarely rise up through the confining layer because they are denser than the cleaner water in the overlying aquifer. The Archimedes principle describes the physics of more dense fluids falling (and staying) below less dense fluids. Wastewater injection wells are also frequently the only alternative to discharging treated wastewater to our lakes, rivers, and streams. The answer isn't treat it "all the way," either. Even turning wastewater into pure water leaves behind a very concentrated waste stream that also must be handled (such as disposal into a deep injection well). The law of conservation of mass dictates that it (human wastes) cannot be destroyed. It has to go somewhere. It could theoretically be dried into a solid and disposed of at our landfills, but then you'd need a lot more landfills... and more energy to treat and dry the waste... and electric utilities to make the energy... and fracking to produce the natural gas to run our electric utilities... or strip mines to produce the rare earth minerals to manufacture solar panels... So, it turns out the reason deep injection wells are the preferred option, is all the other options are much worse. Unless you see an option where everyone stops using the bathroom and just explodes. ;-)

The option is simple, as they did in the Keys when the reef was dying - Everyone has to be on Sewer. There are too many people using septic systems. There is only one solutions but the people affecting the water do not want to take on they burden of what they are creating.

How about dumping the solid waste into an active volcano?

I think all septic tanks within an urban area should be closed and the property connected to a modern sewer system like we have in Pensacola-----after years, and years, and years!

There is something very puzzling about this article. - Under normal operating conditions, a residential septic tank is a tank, a closed system, the effluent is evaporated in the drainage field, there is no raw sewage being discharged. - My question is from where is the raw sewage that is being dumped into the waters coming from?

Effluent from a residential septic tank goes into a drainfield, where it is dispersed into and mixed with groundwater. In much of Florida, groundwater and nearby surface waters (lakes, rivers, estuaries) are interconnected. Enough septic tanks discharging to groundwater in close proximity to a lake, river or estuary means some of the septic tank effluent (which is raw sewage) ends up in the surface water. The other source of raw sewage is more visible. It happens when a sewer main breaks and the untreated wastewater ends up in surface water. By the way, the wastewater coming out of a septic tank is the same strength as the wastewater running through sewage pipes. Septic tanks are not wastewater treatment plants. (At least conventional septic tanks are not.)

WRONG !!!!!!!! Try Again.

Jeff, if the septic effluent is the same strength as that of leaking sewer pipes, why does FDEP designate septic effluent as a biosolid, and sewer effluent as a biohazard? If a septic pumper truck contains septic effluent, it can travel down the road with no special permit. If a septic pumper truck contains effluent from a broken sewer pipe it needs a special permit from FDEP to haul the contents to the nearest Wastewater Treatment Plant or to the nearest manhole leading to it. The only way a septic system can put raw sewage into surface water is if the pipe goes directly from the house to the water. Easy to identify and fix.

Not true. Septic tanks have a heavy concentration of nutrients and metals. Domestic sewer is primarily water... gallon for gallon septage is considerably more toxic. I didn't sleep at Holiday Inn last night but I have been a treatment plant operator for 25yrs.

I found this video which explains the workings of modern day sewage treatment plants-, maybe there is some way a residential septic system could be modified to come closer to a treatment plant

Then what is the point of adding bacteria producing products such as riddex, I thought that the bacteria were actively breaking down the solid waste, leaving some waste sludge that would be removed by those big trucks and then I don't know where it goes.

Guess the loss of tourist dollars hasn't cracked their thick skulls yet.

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nancy smith
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