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

Brian LaPointe arrived on Big Pine Key in 1982 with a single change of clothes, a Chevy van full of sophisticated aquatic measuring devices, and a newly awarded Ph.D. Specifically, LaPointe had come to South Florida to open a field station for the prestigious Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, a private marine research facility in Fort Pierce founded by Seward Johnson, Sr., heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceuticals fortune. More broadly, LaPointe was coming home. The preceding thirteen years all pointed toward the day he borrowed $14,000 to buy a small lot next to a canal on the five-mile-long island, and personally drew up plans for a modest stilt bungalow.

In 1969 LaPointe concluded a string of adolescent honors (including captain of the varsity swimming team, district president of the paramedical club, and escort to the homecoming queen) at Palm Beach High School, alma mater of such suntanned semiluminaries as Burt Reynolds and George Hamilton. At age nine LaPointe had convinced his mother to move the family to Palm Beach from Greenfield, Massachusetts, after the death of his father and grandfather. The impetus: salt water. While traveling to Cuba in 1959 to pay a last visit to his grandfather -- a successful Spanish dentist and businessman whose estate outside Havana has since been appropriated by the nation's Communist Party -- the young LaPointe spent several weeks swimming and snorkeling on Florida's Gold Coast.

"I was never the same after catching my first glimpses of marine life, seeing the nations of fish, all different colors, and the bizarre life forms," LaPointe recalls. "I felt this frustration of being a stranger in a strange land. It wasn't enough for me to dive down and look around; I wanted to understand what I was looking at. I could describe and explain a lot of terrestrial phenomena -- trees and grass and land animals -- but this was something totally different, more subtly complex."

Upon graduation from Palm Beach High, LaPointe returned north to enter Boston University's marine science program, widely regarded as one of the nation's best. During a summer study program at Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institution near Martha's Vineyard, LaPointe met the man who would become his mentor. John Ryther, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and scientist emeritus at Wood's Hole, was among the first people to construct detailed models of how nutrients make plant matter grow in the oceans.

Ryther's early scientific preoccupation with coastal eutrophication -- the process by which human industrial and agricultural activity pollutes near-shore sea waters with nutrients such as phosphates and nitrogen, leading to unusual plant growths, lowered oxygen levels, and disrupted marine life -- is now seen as pioneer thinking. Today the insidious problem of coastal eutrophication is still eclipsed in the popular mind by such dramatic ecological threats as oil tanker spills and ozone holes, but many marine scientists have come to see it as the number-one problem facing a planet made mostly of water.

In 1974, during a four-year period when LaPointe worked for Ryther after graduating from Boston University, the two men were hired to set up an experimental aquaculture system at the newly established Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution. The system used some of the principles Ryther had seen at work in the open ocean -- tiny marine animals feeding on nutrient-laden waters -- but applied them to a problematic, nutrient-rich liquid found on land, in every town and city: sewage. The crude experimental system attempted to treat wastewater with algae, then fed the algae to various marine organisms.

LaPointe enrolled in the graduate environmental engineering program at University of Florida (Gainesville) in 1977, pursuing a master's degree involving courses such as sanitary engineering and aquatic chemistry. His thesis examined how sunlight and chemicals regulate the growth and biological processes of a seaweed called Ulva fasciata, a plant that invaded Boston Harbor in the 1960s and turned it into a desert, and appears to be doing the same thing today in parts of Florida Bay.

"I got a very solid master's degree, and then I returned to my original interest in coral reefs and the organisms that grow on them," says LaPointe. "I decided to go back to the University of South Florida in Tampa and get my Ph.D. in the physiology of how these organisms respond to nutrients. My strategy was to really specialize in the problem of nutrient pollution of Florida's coastal waters. I was really interested in sewage pollution and eutrophication, and I felt that I'd have a real future in this field in Florida."

For the past decade LaPointe has lived the largely solitary life of a research scientist, existing from grant to grant, spending his days on the water in a twenty-foot Mako or in any number of temporarily rented lab spaces around the Keys. With money from the National Science Foundation he explored the physiology of Sargassum, helping debunk the myth that this bright-yellow seaweed propagates in the Sargasso Sea in the mid-Atlantic (in fact the reverse is true: the seaweed winds up there, then dies and sinks). He continued his studies of coastal eutrophication with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and in another experiment abandoned his own hypothesis that the coastal upwelling of nutrients from the deep ocean floor helps fuel oxygen-hungry algae blooms (it doesn't, at least in the Keys). LaPointe even got to travel to Mustique Island in the Grenadines, where British rock stars and royalty keep vacation homes. He was invited there to try to halt the deterioration of a once-healthy reef chain, an ongoing project. "I have come to the end of my rope several times financially, but it's a wonderful existence," says LaPointe of the last ten years. "I have my freedom, which is what academia is all about."

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.

When a person in the upper or middle Keys flushes his toilet, or a cook in a restaurant pours something down the sink, these substances travel by way of gravity through a pipe to an underground tank typically twice the size of a coffin. Throughout the islands, in 30,000 of these concrete containers, the true leftovers from last night's supper are partially decomposed by anaerobic bacteria. Some solids settle to the bottom of the tank to form a concentrated sludge. Meanwhile, much of the liquid waste drains out of the tank into a crisscross network of small plastic pipes embedded in crushed rock. This subterranean network may measure 20 by 40 feet or more. The plastic pipes are perforated with tiny holes, and so the partially putrefied septic tank effluent dribbles out into the ground, where it is supposed to percolate through the soil and cleanse itself.

What actually happens is that the partially treated wastewater emitted from 30,000 septic tanks seeps through the Keys' porous bedrock -- limestone formed millennia ago by the shells of marine microorganisms -- and finds its way into the nearest waterway. In many cases, it trickles down into the region's groundwater, a geologic layer that in many parts of the nation lies deep in the ground but here lies just three to four feet below the surface. The only thing that keeps Keys residents from continually poisoning themselves with their own fecal material is the fact that they pump in every ounce of their drinking water -- all 13 million to 14 million gallons per day -- from wellfields in southern Dade County.

There are all sorts of chemicals and compounds in household wastewater, but more than one-third of it originates in people's toilets. As such, it contains huge amounts of both phosphorus and nitrogen, in the form of phosphate and ammonium. "Using a series of monitor wells we showed that when the tide goes out, the ground water surges, carrying the leachate from the septic tank toward the canals," says LaPointe, describing a study he performed as a consultant to Monroe County. "But by far the greatest effect on the transport of nutrients from the septic tank drainfield to the canal is when the rain hits. It flows literally like a pipe. The flow rate can go from a base of half a meter to three meters per day up to ten meters per day during rain events. Then the nutrients go way up in the canal." And the canal comes to resemble the dead one behind LaPointe's house, from which the polluted water makes its way to the reefs and Florida Bay.

Six months ago on Pigeon Key, with the help of his long-time assistant, Bill Matzie, LaPointe began building the prototype of a bioengineered wastewater treatment system he believes could eliminate the problem of concentrated nutrient runoff from the Keys' septic tanks, and go a long way toward halting the destruction of the area's reefs and fisheries. While no single element of the treatment system is entirely new, government officials and marine scientists say LaPointe's invention is the first of its type, the cutting edge in a new generation of inexpensive, low-tech additions to conventional sewage treatment that help reduce nutrient poisoning in coastal areas.

LaPointe says his wastewater treatment system is so simple as to be unpatentable, yet he already has his first client, a Keys developer who wants to use an enlarged version of the Pigeon Key prototype to treat sewage at a small, upscale housing project on Upper Sugarloaf Key. This week Florida's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services is expected to finalize its approval of a two-year pilot program allowing LaPointe to do business with builder Bill Cobb under the terms of an experimental permit. "I want to see a variety of techniques employed to reduce nutrients in the Keys," says Kevin Sherman, an HRS environmental specialist. "But so far give Brian LaPointe credit for being the first to come up with any viable technique at all."

"The way we handle sewage has got to change," says Cobb, who has built houses in the Keys since the early 1970s. "Looe Key has lost 40 percent of its reef just in the last ten years. That tells me that in ten more years they won't have a reef if something isn't done. [LaPointe] has hit on something that is the only cost-effective way I can see to make it happen.

"I personally think this could be the system of the future," Cobb continues. "I honestly believe that in five years, you're going to see this thing made mandatory. The great thing about it is that it could be used retroactively. It could easily be hooked up to thousands of existing septic tanks. It'll work on a small scale and it'll work on a large scale."

LaPointe's prototype on Pigeon Key -- a household-size model developed through a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- uses a series of four 500-gallon tanks to naturally remove phosphate and ammonium from 100 gallons of wastewater per day, the typical amount generated by one household. LaPointe is now using a nutrient solution to simulate sewage, because it allows him to do more exact experimental fiddling than if he used the real thing. In the first tub, Scendesmus, a common green alga, feeds voraciously on the microscopic nutrients contained in the wastewater liquid. Using sunlight as energy, the hungry phytoplankton convert nitrogen and phosphorus into biomass. A tiny air pump keeps the water in the first tank aerated so the algae have plenty of carbon dioxide to use in the photosynthetic process, and also to prevent the septic tank effluent from stinking.

Wastewater from the first tank trickles through a gravity pipe into the second. There the nutrient-enriched phytoplankton are devoured by 300 inch-long blue tilapia fish, an African fresh-water species that can grow to twelve inches and survive in brackish water.

"As they graze and grow, the fish are accumulating nitrogen and phosphorus in their protein tissue," LaPointe notes. "On a large scale, we are potentially talking about a new industry for parts of South Florida. We're talking about transforming what are now thought of as pollutants into commercially valuable fish protein. Fish harvests around the world are being depleted due to overfishing and pollution, and at the same time demand for fish is soaring. Even if we couldn't eat them as humans, the fish could certainly be used for other sources of protein. Cat food is one. If there were some public health reason or a reason humans found it unpalatable to eat fish raised on sewage, there are other, international markets for high-quality protein, which is what these fish are."

Water trickles into the third tank, carrying with it what little nutrients haven't been eaten by the algae or the fish. Tank number three is covered over with thick, black plastic, shielding it from the sun. Protruding from the plastic are water lettuce plants, whose roots extend down into the tank. Beneath the surface of the water are several pounds of plastic substrate -- rings of plastic lattice material that act as a skeleton on which anaerobic microbes roost while they digest much of the remaining nutrients. More nitrogen and phosphorus are absorbed by the plants, which like the fish must be periodically harvested and could then be used for compost or to produce methane gas.

"The remaining amount of that redigested nutrient is then removed to the final, fourth stage, which is a 'polishing pond,'" says LaPointe. "We've tried a variety of different plants. You can use submerged plants such as hydrilla. We now have pennywort and duckweed growing in here. We've already achieved 90 percent removal by this point. When I say polishing, I mean that these plants are pulling out the last little five percent of nutrients -- virtually down to detection limit, which happen to be the levels in which coral reefs thrive. You can see that the water is crystal clear. It smells great."

LaPointe envisions a large version of his invention on each of the Florida Keys. Comparatively inexpensive networks of sewer pipes (smaller and shallower than conventional sewers) would be used to link the existing septic tanks of homes and businesses to the system. Instead of allowing septic tank effluent to percolate into the ground, small pumps in each septic tank would send the fluid into the first of a series of treatment ponds. From there the system would function essentially the same as the Pigeon Key prototype.

Besides removing nutrients from sewage, LaPointe says his treatment system will also eliminate most pathogens, such as fecal coliform bacteria. While conventional treatment plants process sewage in the course of 18 to 24 hours, the Pigeon Key system has a much longer detention time -- about ten days. During this time, the wastewater in the system goes through several diurnal temperature swings. The nocturnal cooling of the pools lowers the water's acidity, while the increased tempo of daytime chemical events raises it. What viruses and bacteria aren't killed off by this oscillation will be done in by the intense ultraviolet radiation beating down into all but the third tank.

Kevin Sherman, the HRS official who approved Florida's first commercial application of LaPointe's solar aquatic technology, says he isn't particularly concerned about the invention's ability to kill pathogens. Almost anything would be an improvement. "We know what the effectiveness of two feet of soil is in removing microbiological pathogens," he notes. "We feel that Dr. LaPointe's system will do at least as well as what exists now."

R.J. Helbling, branch office manager for the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation in Marathon, worries that LaPointe's system will take up too much land. He points out that about 70 cities and towns in the United States use some version of so-called constructed wetlands technology to treat wastewater that has already been partially treated by conventional sewage plants. (Another 400 household and small commercial arrangements are in use, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, including one at the Vermont corporate headquarters of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, and another at the home of Garfield cartoonist Jim Davis.) These systems, which often use low-maintenance marshes filled with cattails, water hyacinths, and other hearty weeds to remove nutrients, all depend on lots of acreage. LaPointe says Helbling's skepticism would be valid almost anywhere north of the Keys. But South Florida's near-tropical sunlight, LaPointe says, maintains temperatures, and hence reaction times for nutrient uptake, high enough to keep the land requirements reasonable.

Jim Kreissl, an environmental engineer at the EPA's research lab in Cincinnati, says the partnership between LaPointe and developer Bill Cobb represents the first time in America that a solar aquatic system has been built without government assistance, and in a real-world setting. (Cobb's project on Upper Sugarloaf Key calls for eight elegant Conch-style homes that will sell for between $400,000 and $2 million. LaPointe's innovative sewage system is just one element in an environmentally conscious design that includes a ban on power boats and a decision not to pave the development's roads.) While hopeful for the success of the project, Kreissl wonders if the sewage-treatment system will require perpetual monitoring by a Ph.D. in algal physiology.

"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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