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Bill would allow dirty water to be pumped into aquifer

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida environmentalists are sounding the alarm over a bill that would relax the state's drinking-water standards to allow utilities to pump slightly polluted water underground into Florida's aquifer.

"We're taking water that was otherwise pristine, not contaminated, and we're putting this other contaminated water into it," said Suzi Ruhl, a lawyer with the Florida Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation. "This is the first time a state Legislature has even entered into that territory."

"We believe," added Sierra Club lobbyist Susie Caplowe, "that this is opening a Pandora's box."

But the environmentalists' pleas apparently fell on deaf ears -- the Senate Natural Resources Committee passed the bill unanimously Wednesday.

An identical measure is pending in the House. Both bills will go through several more committee stops before going to the full Legislature for a vote.

The proposal is being pushed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which says the more relaxed standards will help cut costs when the state embarks on a massive re-plumbing of the Everglades. Part of the plan calls for punching more than 300 holes in the limestone near Lake Okeechobee. During the rainy season, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would inject more than 1-billion gallons of fresh water a day into the wells. The fresh water would sit 1,000 feet underground in a bubble in the brackish Floridan Aquifer, where about 30 percent of it would dribble away. During dry weather, what remained could be pumped back to the surface to feed the Everglades and thirsty cities.

But the water that the state wants to pump underground -- water that comes from polluted Lake Okeechobee, and the surrounding sugar, dairy, and vegetable farms -- won't pass drinking water standards without expensive treatment. So, the state wants to relax the rules, and allow the water to exceed standards for bacteria and coliform. Coliform comes from human and animal waste.

The theory is that the bacteria won't survive underground. Anyone applying for permission to build a deep well would have to first prove that the bacteria will die off. Supporters of the bill say the water will be treated anyway to drinking water standards when it's pumped back up.

Environmentalists point out that Florida's other experiments with injecting into the aquifer haven't been without problems; in St. Petersburg, partly treated sewage that was pumped underground migrated upward, contaminating private drinking-water wells.

"Those wells were put in a long time ago," said Mimi Drew, who heads the DEP division that oversees water and sewer plants. "We've not had this problem in the facilities we permitted later. This isn't the beast it's being made out to be."

Relaxing the standards, Drew said, is the only way to make the Everglades plan cost-efficient.

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