Study: Sewage spills foul waters

The nonprofit Clean Water Fund says the state hasn't improved in reporting the mishaps.

Published July 28, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - The state has failed to improve its record of reporting sewage spills into Florida waters and along beaches, an environmental group said Thursday in a follow-up to a study it released last year.

The 2005 study by the nonprofit Clean Water Fund was called "Are We Wading in Waste?" and the follow-up is titled "Are We Still Wading in Waste?" The answer, according to the study, is yes. It shows the state accounted for 44-million to 51-million gallons of wastewater and sewage spilled last year.

"This is only a drop in the bucket of what may really be happening," said Kathleen Aterno, the fund's Florida director, in a statement.

"Not only has little changed in how spills are being reported, it appears that no one, including the state, counties and the public, is getting the full picture of how much sewage is actually spilling in our communities."

The study notes that a 250,000 gallon sewage spill that closed beaches in Boca Raton and Boynton Beach last year is nowhere to be found in the Division of Emergency Management's "State Warning Point" data, although it had been highlighted in the fund's 2005 study.

In other instances, the state simply listed "unknown amounts" for various spills.

Division of Emergency Management spokesman Mike Stone had no immediate comment on the study itself, but he said the data is collected to help state and local agencies respond quickly to the spills rather than for record-keeping purposes.

"That's like the 911 dispatcher," said Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Anthony De Luise. He said it is illogical to consider it a complete record of spills.

The Boynton Beach-Boca Raton spill was promptly reported to a state agency, the Department of Health, De Luise said, but he acknowledged it did not go through the Warning Point system as required.

The study makes several recommendations for improving data collection, which is the basis of public health warnings. They include keeping information on overflows at a central location in each county and using unified and standardized reporting forms for all utilities.

Those and other suggestions would help counties provide accurate spill information to citizens through "right-to-know" mailings similar to those utilities send customers with information on drinking water quality.

"The people of Florida have a right to know about these water quality and safety issues," Aterno said. "This report is another wake-up call to the state and utilities."