Waste Erased

Scientist Brian LaPointe wants to tame the sugar barons, corner the cat food market, and solve the sewage problems of the Florida Keys

And while guarding his freedom and going about his scientific business for the past decade, LaPointe has watched the canal behind his house change from a gin-clear waterway alive with snapper and other gamefish to an unswimmable, pea-green morass clogged with weeds and riddled with stinging jellyfish, an indicator of pollution. This manmade limestone channel is like a visible conscience: What is happening in that waterway -- an alarming evolution similarly observed by thousands of Monroe County residents on local coral reefs, canals, and favorite fishing flats -- is at the very heart of LaPointe's life work. It is the problem around which he has been circling for years, like a careful hawk around dangerous quarry. LaPointe thinks he now understands the problem. Better yet, he says he has the solution.

Why exactly pigeons so like Pigeon Key remains a mystery. They flocked to the tiny island in the early 1800s when it was named, and they flocked there in the early 1900s when Henry Flagler made the key his headquarters. They flock there today, raining down guano upon the head of a state trooper who gets to reside in Flagler's old office. From a pigeon's point of view, the speck of land just south of Marathon hadn't changed much in a century, until this past summer. Beginning in late June, a large human started showing up with tanks that looked like giant birdbaths. The 700-gallon fiberglass tubs appeared, one by one, until there were four in a row sitting on the grass at the south end of the island.

The large human, with occasional assistance from a tall, lanky fellow, linked the tanks together with pipes. In the first tub, a green algae appeared. The second was stocked with tiny fish. In the third grew some plants, thickly. The fourth contained more plants, sparsely. Out the end of the last tub trickled clear water, which the large human would occasionally drink, then proceed to dance a little jig. If pure drinking water dribbled out the last pool of the birdbath contraption, what was the stuff being so carefully pumped into the first tank?

The Florida Keys are all about water, in a way that is perfectly obvious to anyone who has ever driven U.S. 1 to the end of the line, and then shelled out an inordinate amount of cash just for the privilege of staying the night. Take away the fish and the reefs and you've gone a long way toward killing the Keys' tourist-based economy. Without the fish to catch and the reefs to dive, a few aesthetes will still come to get drunk and look at the sunset, but even that sensual joy will be diminished: the color of the water will be noticeably changed, the stunning hues diminished. That dire and wholesale destruction is taking place right now, according to a variety of experts. And after years of overdevelopment, public and official awareness of the islands' ecological brittleness has resulted in a de facto building moratorium. You can still buy a lot on Big Pine Key as Brian LaPointe did in 1982, but it's entirely unclear whether you will be given a permit to build anything on it.

Since the mid-1980s, LaPointe has hypothesized -- and come closer and closer to proving -- that phosphates from mining operations along the Peace River on Florida's Gulf Coast are pouring into Florida Bay, the watery region that laps against the southern edge of the Florida peninsula and the northern edge of the upper and middle Keys. There, LaPointe says, the phosphates mix with nitrogenous agricultural runoff carried down through the Everglades. The confluence of these two types of nutrients fuels vast blooms of algae, which in turn suck oxygen out of the water and block sunlight, ruining fisheries, killing sea plants, and choking the delicate microorganisms that comprise reefs.

Officials at Everglades National Park and the South Florida Water Management District have recently awakened to the growing "dead zone" in Florida Bay -- a problem fishermen have been talking about for years -- and have offered a different hypothesis. While recognizing the same symptoms, they blame the algae blooms and dying reefs on Florida Bay's high salinity. It is this highly saline water, not the presence of agricultural and industrial pollutants, that nurtures the algae blooms, they say; the startling amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus are created by the death and decomposition of seagrass and other sea plants. Their solution to the problem, which LaPointe calls no solution at all, is a vaguely defined scheme to dump more fresh water into the bay after channeling it through the Everglades via drainage canals.

Whether the main culprit in moribund Florida Bay is salinity or industrial waste, everyone scrutinizing the problem agrees there is another significant factor at work. Septic tanks treat approximately 70 percent of the sewage in the Keys (a municipal plant in Key West processes the rest). But as natives have long suspected and LaPointe was the first to document in rigorous scientific detail during the late 1980s, Monroe County's septic tank technology is grossly out of sync with its geology and hydrology.

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