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Aquifer injection scuttled

Thousands of residents have called, written or e-mailed lawmakers urging them to reconsider.

By CRAIG PITTMAN and LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 1, 2001


Thousands of residents have called, written or e-mailed lawmakers urging them to reconsider.

TALLAHASSEE -- Public opposition has killed a bill that would have allowed pumping untreated water into the state's aquifer, a startling turnaround for a measure that passed both the House and Senate by wide margins earlier in the legislative session.

Two weeks ago the bill seemed certain to become law. But on Monday two of the bill's leading supporters, Gov. Jeb Bush and state Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said they will withdraw the aquifer-storage proposal from further consideration.

Bush said he did not want to subject his allies to the "distorted" political fallout that would result if the bill passed. Pruitt, the bill's Senate sponsor, blamed environmental "extremists" for its demise.

"Hysteria prevailed over science," Pruitt said.

However, one of the few senators to vote against the bill, Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, said Monday's announcement shows how powerful the people's voice can be. Thousands had called, written or e-mailed lawmakers who voted for the bill, urging them to reconsider, she said.

"To now see this turnaround is very, very refreshing," Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, said. "This is what our democracy is all about."

Jonathan Ullman of the Sierra Club said the bill's own backers killed it by trying to rush it through without sufficient scientific study.

"It was their burden of proof to show that this was safe, and they did not," Ullman said. "This bill did put the cart before the horse."

The bill proposed changing the rules for storing water in the state's aquifer. Aquifer storage and recovery, or ASR, has recently become an accepted alternative to building big, expensive reservoirs. Seven ASR wells now operate around the state and permits for 26 more have been issued.

In an ASR well, the freshwater is pumped 1,000 feet underground to be held in a bubble in the brackish Floridan Aquifer. Perhaps a third of it would dribble away, but during dry weather what remained could be pumped back to the surface.

The law now requires that water stored in ASR wells be treated to drinking water standards before being pumped underground, to protect the aquifer. Then it is treated again when it is brought back up, before it is distributed to utility customers.

The state Department of Environmental Protection had proposed a bill relaxing those standards to allow water tainted with bacteria and fecal coliform, which comes from human and animal waste, to be pumped into ASR wells.

Instead of rushing through such a change, officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggested in January that the state try some experiments first to see if it would work. Instead, three days after the EPA raised its objections, the governor wrote his brother, newly inaugurated President George W. Bush, to complain. The governor labeled Clean Water Act rules "nonsensical" and urged his brother to "change the culture" at EPA to allow states to try new solutions.

Relaxing the rules against using untreated water was expected to save up to $400-million on the cost of the $8-billion Everglades restoration project, which envisions using more than 300 ASR wells around Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River. One part of the plan would have had the water pumped back up from the aquifer and used to flood the Everglades as part of the restoration.

Pruitt warned Monday that requiring treatment of the water will hurt the Everglades project.

"What's happened is that the extremists in the environmental community have succeeded in costing the Everglades $400-million . . . and the timetable will be set back," Pruitt said. But Ullman of the Sierra Club said the Everglades plan always contemplated requiring treatment of the ASR water.

The ASR bill did not limit the change to the Everglades. The relaxed standards would apply to the whole state, opening the way for hundreds of new ASR wells -- and, according to environmental groups, a widespread risk to the state's drinking water.

Proponents of the bill said the bacteria and coliform would die off while the water was stored underground. But no one can explain how the die-off occurs or guarantee it will occur every time, said John Vecchioli, retired district chief of the U.S. Geological Survey. Harold Wanless, chairman of the University of Miami's geology department, called the plan "idiocy."

DEP Secretary David Struhs insisted that his agency would ensure that no contamination spread from the ASR wells and that if monitoring detected a problem the state could just reverse the pumps and draw the water back up.

That was good enough for most lawmakers. Earlier this session, the bill passed the Senate 29-7 and, in a slightly different version, cleared the House 74-40. The two houses would have had to reconcile the differences before sending the bill to Bush for his signature.

"I don't believe we're going to do anything to contaminate the water," Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, said before voting for the bill April 11. "If we do, I'll be the first one to apologize."

A week later, reeling from a barrage of e-mails and letters from outraged constituents, Miller announced he would now vote against the bill. After other lawmakers began expressing doubts, the governor announced at a luncheon Monday in West Palm Beach that he would stop pushing the ASR bill, but not because he no longer had enough votes.

"We can get the bill passed right now," Bush said. "But I'm not sure I want to put my friends on record on any issue that could be grossly distorted."

In a two-page statement released late Monday, Struhs promised that his agency will now recruit "the best available experts" to review whether there is a need for treating the ASR well water and report back to the governor and Legislature next year.

"The public clearly desires abundant proof positive that new ASR wells and new management systems will consistently yield water that meets or exceeds every public health and environmental quality standard," he said.

-- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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