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Utilities are dumping sewage sludge in St. Johns River basin, we need a moratorium now | Opinion
Florida waters are suffering from a growing pollution threat: sewage sludge.
Also known as biosolids, this sludge is a byproduct of the process to clean our wastewater. In an effort to dispose of this waste inexpensively, utilities often contract with third-party haulers to transport and spread excess sludge on to agricultural lands. This unsustainable disposal practice exposes adjacent waters to those agricultural areas to high levels of pollution from runoff.
In 2007, the Florida Legislature essentially banned the land disposal of sewage sludge in the Lake Okeechobee watershed. This legislation was enacted in response to the serious nutrient pollution problem that was severely degrading the lake’s water quality. As a result, the state began permitting the redistribution of South Florida’s sewage sludge to areas with fewer restrictions north of the lake.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection confirmed that on average more than 70,000 tons of sewage sludge have since been annually permitted to be disposed within the upper basin of the St. Johns River, which includes Brevard, Indian River and Osceola Counties. In 2016, this represented more than 73 percent of the Class B biosolids permitted for land application in the entire state.
This state-sanctioned spreading of sewage sludge is now degrading the St. Johns River’s water quality and threatening human health. Did they believe that they could simply relocate sewage sludge to a different watershed without a similar degradation of water quality and increased threats to human health?
Biosolids are undermining the significant investments made by downstream local governments to remove nutrient pollution from the St. Johns and its lakes and tributaries. The state-required Basin Management Action Plan (BMAP) for the middle section of the St. Johns River determined that over 96 percent of the total nitrogen loading and 95 percent of the total phosphorous loading in the middle basin of the river comes from upstream sources. The addition of biosolids-related nutrient pollution will only make it much more expensive and difficult for Central Florida communities and businesses to reduce nutrients by close to 38 percent, as required by the state.
In response to the public outcry, the DEP recently formed a Biosolids Technical Advisory Committee to further evaluate this issue. We are pleased to see the state finally taking some action, but this committee is simply evaluating the same technical issues and research that were previously determined to warrant legislative restrictions on this harmful practice in South Florida.
While good for the Lake Okeechobee watershed, this unfortunately left the remainder of the state exposed to the water quality impacts of sewage sludge. It should come as no surprise that the application of over 70 percent of the state’s biosolids to agricultural lands within the St. Johns watershed would have the same devastating results.
To add insult to injury, four of the seven members of the Biosolids Committee benefit financially from this practice and the status quo. Not one representative from the local governments or citizens being adversely impacted downstream of the permitted pollution sites was selected to serve on the committee. This is unacceptable.
The St. Johns River and all of the local governments, businesses, area residents and the millions of annual visitors deserve to have their voices heard and to have real relief now. With the future of the St. Johns River and so many other waterways at stake, immediate action to end this unacceptable harm is needed.
We urgently request a moratorium on sewage sludge applications within the St. Johns River watershed until a protective alternative disposal method or new technology is implemented that will protect Florida’s waters, economy, public investment and human health.
Jimmy Orth is executive director of the St. Johns Riverkeeper.