Deep Well Infection

A sordid tale about breaking rule number one: Don't shit where you drink

Now the sewage has moved directly into the aquifer, and though it's not the primary one, that's small solace after a few years of drought. But the wastewater hasn't stopped moving. It wants to rise. County geologist Bertha Goldenberg of the Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer Department cannot explain where it's going or what happened to it. Will it seep into the sea and poison offshore marine life? Could it make it to the main drinking-water supply?

Facing alarming questions without satisfactory answers, the EPA had to respond. Unsurprisingly the agency decided not to shut down deep well injection in Florida; it is fearful of the lawsuits and howls of pain from taxpayers forced to sop up billions in costs for the agency's errors. Following the well-worn precept, “It's not what's legal, it's what can be legalized,' the EPA opted to alter the rules and allow for some contamination of underground sources of drinking water. Shit happens.

Currently the agency is taking public comment on two different alternatives for its rule change. Option number one requires that all sewage sent into the earth be given what the EPA calls “advanced treatment.” This high-level cleansing process would make the wastewater going into the aquifer clean enough to qualify for national drinking-water standards.

The county first discovered the contamination through a monitoring  well in 1994
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
The county first discovered the contamination through a monitoring well in 1994
The county first discovered the contamination through a monitoring  well in 1994
Photos by Steve Satterwhite
The county first discovered the contamination through a monitoring well in 1994

This option has both environmentalists and utilities enraged. Advanced treatment does not come cheap, and no one -- from utilities on down the line -- wants to pay. “What we're saying is this technology [deep well] is, has been, and continues to be more than viable,” insists Lisa Maxwell, a spokesperson for the Builders Association of South Florida, whose 700 members cover South Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties. “It happens to be sound, so to limit its use or to decree additional requirements that cause hardship on local utilities and utility departments really is not the way to go about this.”

Laughing, she promises hefty sewer bills will be needed if the EPA forces a multibillion-dollar retooling effort.

Environmentalists are no less incensed that the EPA is backtracking on the no-migration rule, after its safety assurances smoothed the way for this whole crisis in the first place. They believe current drinking-water laws aren't tough enough, and advanced treatment won't do the job. Of the 15,000 chemicals in highest use, less than 22 percent of them have undergone minimal tests for toxicity, points out Suzi Ruhl, president of the environmental group LEAF.

People are going to pay regardless, believes Ruhl, whether it's through illness or higher sewer bills. What particularly bothers her about the EPA's proposed change is that it doesn't give an incentive to treat and reuse the wastewater for non-drinking purposes, like watering golf courses. She believes such reuse is an important solution to dealing with the problem.

Option number two would allow the utilities to continue injecting as they have in the past, but to monitor the situation more closely. If they detect a health risk, they would be forced to stop. Although utilities and builders might find this more agreeable, they still are complaining it will be too expensive. Environmentalists argue that not only will the aquifer have to be treated by the spread of the sewage, but that left alone, it could reach the primary source of drinking water, the Biscayne aquifer.

It's Monday, September 25. At a conference room in the Sheraton Biscayne Bay on Brickell Avenue, Alan Farago of the Sierra Club and Suzi Ruhl, president of LEAF, sell their fear of deep well injection to representatives of environmental groups and the foundations that fund them. Farago wants the organizations to join his crusade and help bankroll it.

Conspicuously absent is any staff from the National Audubon Society, arguably the wealthiest and most politically connected environmental organization in South Florida. Ruhl invited them. Audubon has a suite of offices directly across the street from the hotel and a staff of sixteen. Mark Kraus, National Audubon's deputy director for its Florida office, says it was not a snub; a hydrologist for the organization was slated to attend but fell ill. Some at the meeting suspect Audubon wants to avoid confronting problems with deep well injection. Audubon has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for the $7.8 billion Everglades restoration proposal. In order for it to work, the plan relies heavily on deep well injection technology -- and the same geological theories that might have failed with wastewater disposal.

A presentation to the assembled group by LEAF consultant Sydney Bacchus is long on enthusiasm and short on real data. Pictures of turtles with ghastly tumors are presented to shock, but there is no hard data to link them to deep well injection sewage. Talk of zones offshore, where leaking sewage has killed all marine life, must be investigated further before being passed off as a smoking gun. It's assertions such as these that help industry groups effectively dismiss LEAF as fearmongers. “They made a concerted effort to approach the EPA and scare them,” complains builders rep Lisa Maxwell.

On an issue as vital as this, where thorough science clearly is lacking and politics holds sway, both sides are actively trying to get the attention of the federal and state government any way they can. Public comment on the new EPA rule will be open until the end of October. LEAF's challenge to keep the water and sewer department from operating the last four wells at the South Miami-Dade facility is scheduled for December.

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