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Critics: Aquifer at risk from proposal

While some fear contamination from plans to pump in untreated water, supporters say it will save millions.


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2001

While some fear contamination from plans to pump in untreated water, supporters say it will save millions.

TALLAHASSEE -- A plan that would allow water tainted with fecal coliform to be pumped into the underground aquifer appears headed for Gov. Jeb Bush's signature, and his environmental chief is stepping up a campaign to defend the idea.

"I'm not sure it's fair to call it contaminated water," Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs told reporters just before the state House of Representatives voted 74-40 to relax drinking water standards so that tainted water could be pumped underground.

The bill now goes back to the state Senate for review. But that chamber passed a virtually identical version last week, so it is likely the measure will be sent to Bush for his approval shortly.

Struhs called the plan one of the new "green technologies" and said it will help restore the Everglades and provide freshwater during drought. The state wants to punch more than 300 holes in the limestone near Lake Okeechobee. During the rainy season, more than 1-billion gallons of freshwater a day would be injected into the so-called Aquifer Storage and Recovery wells.

The water would sit 1,000 feet underground, theoretically forming a bubble in the brackish Floridan Aquifer. At least 30 percent would dribble away during dry weather, and the rest could be pumped back up later to supply the Everglades and thirsty cities.

The change would apply to the whole state, not just the Everglades, opening the way for hundreds of new aquifer storage and recovery wells that would normally violate drinking water standards.

Struhs said the water the state wants to pump underground near the Everglades -- which comes from polluted Lake Okeechobee and the surrounding sugar, dairy, and vegetable farms -- is no more contaminated than pond water. He said water already flows off the ground every day into sinkholes and springs.

But some experts, including a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences, say the plan is more massive than any ever tried. They have said it is unproven and dangerous.

Struhs said it makes sense for the state to treat the water only once, when it's pumped back up. Relaxing the standards will theoretically save millions of dollars in the huge replumbing of the Everglades.

"What we're talking about is taking water and storing it underground," Struhs said. "It really reduces losses (from evaporation). It's being stored in an area that doesn't create any human pathways for exposure or any public health threats."

Florida already stores some water underground, but never before has the state sought to relax pollution standards first.

Environmentalists say the polluted water could migrate upward, into more shallow drinking water aquifers. People on private wells would then have to be hooked to public water systems, increasing business for the state's utilities, they say. Engineering companies, which stand to make big money from the plan, support the idea.

Struhs criticized environmentalists who oppose the bill, saying they are using the issue as "a good opportunity for fundraising."

On the House floor, Democrats decried the plan, while most lawmakers milled about, talking among themselves.

"How can we go home to the people, the people we represent, and tell them that we are willing to take this risk? That we are willing to contaminate our aquifer with coliforms, eloquently known as ca-ca?" argued Rep. Cindy Lerner, a Miami Democrat.

House Democratic leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach called it "animal toilet water."

But other lawmakers praised the plan as a far-reaching solution to Florida's water woes.

"Here we are, scaring everybody with this debate," argued Rep. Frank Attkisson, a Republican from Kissimmee. "We're storing it reasonably and prudently in the resources the good Lord gave us."

The DEP maintains that no wells will be drilled unless scientists prove that bacteria and fecal coliform, which come from human and animal waste, die off underground. If scientific monitoring detects bacteria or coliform, he said, the state could reverse the pumps and draw the water back up.

The federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires that any water that's pumped into the aquifer be treated to drinking water standards first. By passing the legislation, Florida would be asking the federal government to waive that requirement. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would have to sign off on the idea.

The previous EPA administration took a dim view of the idea, but the new administration, under President Bush, hasn't taken a postion yet.

During floor debate Monday, Democrat Sara Romeo from Lutz made a dig at Tampa Sen. Les Miller. Miller enraged some of his constituents last week when he said: "I don't believe we're going to do anything to contaminate the water. If we do, I'll be the first one to apologize."

Arguing against the bill, Romeo said, "A vote against this bill means never having to say you're sorry."

Monday, Rep. Jerry Maygarden, R-Pensacola, added an amendment that exempts northwest Florida from the plan because the landscape is riddled with sinkholes and springs. That amendment kicked the measure back to the Senate. It's unclear when the Senate will take up the bill.

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