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Senate okays aquifer storage bill

The EPA and activists have raised concerns about pumping tainted water into the drinking water supply.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 12, 2001


The EPA and activists have raised concerns about pumping tainted water into the drinking water supply.

TALLAHASSEE -- After debating whether the move would foul Florida's drinking water supplies, the state Senate voted 29-7 Wednesday to relax environmental rules and allow tainted water to be pumped into Florida's underground aquifer.

The move prompted one environmentalist, lawyer Suzi Ruhl of the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation, to accuse the Senate of "signing the death warrant for Florida's drinking water."

"They are allowing human and animal waste in pristine water -- water you could stick a straw in the ground and drink from," Ruhl said.

The measure, which is being pushed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, will be up for final passage in the House of Representatives next week.

Gov. Jeb Bush supports the proposal, his spokeswoman, Elizabeth Hirst, said.

"I don't believe we're going to do anything to contaminate the water," argued Tampa Democratic Sen. Les Miller, who voted for the bill. "If we do, I'll be the first one to apologize."

The bill focuses on a technology called aquifer storage and recovery, in which freshwater is pumped underground and theoretically sits in a bubble until it's later pulled back up. DEP officials argue that the water will be treated to drinking-water standards when it's recovered.

The wells are a key part of the massive re-plumbing of the Everglades. The state and federal governments propose to punch 300 wells 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 freshwater a day into the wells. The freshwater 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.

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 bill the Senate passed Wednesday would apply statewide, not just in the Everglades, opening the way for hundreds of new aquifer storage and recovery wells that would normally violate state and federal drinking water standards.

According to an analysis of the legislation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has "grave concerns" about Florida's attempt to relax its longtime rules to keep drinking water pure. An independent science group, the National Research Council, issued a report in February that said the plan may "pose environmental or health concerns."

On the Senate floor, supporters tried to downplay concerns, saying they were convinced that scientists would one day prove that bacteria and coliform would die off underground and pose little health threat.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Palm Harbor who is known as the Senate's environmental champion, called the concerns "much ado about nothing" and blamed "extreme environmentalists" for whipping up opposition.

"The real question is: Should we have to clean up the water before we pump it underground and then clean it up again when we pump it back up? I'm one of those people who think we ought to clean it up once when we bring it back up," Latvala said.

Brooksville Republican Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite tried to amend the bill and make it illegal to relax drinking water rules in 25 of Florida's 67 counties. The amendment failed. The House version, though, would not allow the practice in northwest Florida, where the land is pockmarked with springs and sinkholes.

"Once the aquifer is contaminated, it's going to be extremely expensive to provide any remedies," Brown-Waite argued.

How local senators voted

A "Yes" vote is in favor of allowing tainted water to be pumped into Florida's aquifer.

Ginny Brown-Waite, R NO

Anna P. Cowin, R NO

Victor Crist, R NO

Tom Lee, R YES

Jack Latvala, R YES

Richard Mitchell, D YES

Jim Sebesta, R YES

Les Miller, D YES

Don Sullivan, R YES

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