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

"The systems that have been tried elsewhere are sometimes very sophisticated ecosystems," says Kreissl. "These things, at least up until this time, have not demonstrated the passivity that is necessary for small communities to adopt them. Unless it can be put in the hands of regular people in small communities, they won't work. It's possible that [LaPointe's] variation simplifies it to the point where that can happen."

Bill Bowne, an Oregon-based consulting engineer for the EPA who wrote the agency's manual on alternative wastewater treatment techniques, salutes LaPointe's work. He says he's been depressed for years at how little innovation he sees in the field of sewage technology, despite substantial encouragement from the federal government since passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972. "Sometimes I think that if electricity were a health issue, we wouldn't have any light bulbs," Bowne says. "So many engineers want to do something just a teeny, tiny bit different and call it innovative. Liability is a huge issue, and reputation is a huge issue. Sewage systems are large-ticket issues, with millions of dollars of taxpayers' money at stake. Oddly enough, you don't find engineers applying science. You find them applying zoning codes, or business sense, or grant guidelines. It's terribly surprising and disappointing. LaPointe is an innovator, a leader. Thank God!"

LaPointe, a preternaturally mellow guy, laughingly points out that Bowne isn't his only fan, nor is Cobb the only one to look at his Pigeon Key bioengineering in terms of potential profit. Even before building his prototype, LaPointe says he saw how the nutrient-removal system could be applied to large-scale agricultural runoff. About a year ago, around the time Florida was being sued by the federal government for failing to stop Central Florida sugar growers from polluting the Everglades with phosphorus and nitrogen from chemical fertilizers, the telephone rang. Hours later LaPointe was speeding toward Palm Beach, summoned there by the Fanjul family, the biggest sugar barons of all.

"They told me, 'Look, we're not so concerned about removing nutrients from the farm runoff as we are about making money. If you can show us how we can make more money growing fish than growing sugarcane, then you'll have our ear,'" LaPointe recalls. "This was a round-table discussion. They had a lot of their farm supervisors there, and a lot of lawyers. We went and actually walked the farms, and I described how the system would physically look in terms of placement, the hydrology of the farms, and the configuration of the canals. I told them what I was doing on Pigeon Key. Now they've taken the ball and are running with it. They have their own program manager, who has been all over the state and country looking at tilapia farms. We'll see what happens, eh? You never know what the future holds.

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