by Joyce Marcel
August 26, 2010
A BUSHEL FULL
DESTIN, Fla. -- Over the past several years, Floridians have seen more than their share of disasters. Hurricanes, recession and an ecological disaster of monumental proportions have dealt severe blows - but the economic devastation of these events pale in comparison to the manmade disaster looming on our horizon.
As our state struggles to recover from losses measured in millions and billions, bureaucrats in Washington are preparing to up the ante with new regulations that only Floridians will have to meet - and it will cost us more than a trillion.
It is a complicated issue, but if Floridians don't take the time to understand the threat and speak up, the bottom line is fairly simple. Our monthly water bills will increase by 100 percent - or perhaps even more - and property taxes will go through the roof.
The increase stems from a new rule being imposed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency requiring any discharge to a water body to meet strict numeric limits on nitrogen and phosphorus levels. No one disagrees that limits on these two key ingredients of fertilizer can be dangerous to the health of a body of water. Yet, despite years of research, water and soil scientists have never agreed on what those limits should be.
The relationship between nutrients and water bodies is too complex to know precisely how much of these organic chemicals are dangerous to the wide variety of bodies of water in this state. What may be poison to a freshwater pond fed by a well might not be so deadly to a river, and a concentration that might kill swamp life in the Everglades may be harmless in the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean.
Regardless of location, of course, whether in a stagnant pond, a raging river or brackish coastal wetlands mixed with saltwater, water has only one variety: H20. When the oxygen molecule is depleted, such as by overfertilization and pollution from barns and feedlots, fish are left gasping for air, and various forms of toxic algae may stink up beaches, stop or endanger swimmers, halt boating and other aquatic sports, and ruin ponds, streams, rivers, lakes and oceans.
What's good for a golf course may not be so good for the stream meandering through it; what's good for the lawns of countless Florida resorts may not be so good for body of water into which high concentrations of potassium and nitrogen flow via sewer systems to the Gulf of Mexico.
But the lack of scientific concentration thresholds won't stop the EPA from imposing costly restrictions on the state of Florida. Stymied by the lack of reliable science, they have decided to use a statistical approach.
The EPA analyzed the water of streams that appeared to be healthy, determined the average value of nitrogen and phosphorus for those streams, and used those concentrations as reference points the new standard everyone in the state must meet.
It would be nice to think money spent to meet the new standard would pay off in improved water quality. But the rules, as currently crafted, could very well do more harm than good. Nitrogen and potassium from potash and phosphate, which are fertilizer for most crops and grass - and also for oxygen-depleting algae such as the dreaded red tide - cannot be treated like other pollutants. In most contexts, they are nutrients - food - and have to be dispensed in the proper doses. Overfeeding is bad and underfeeding is bad. Since the limits being set by EPA are a statistical mean, it stands to reason that all water bodies will be either overfed or underfed.
Based on the proposed rule the EPA will enact in October, the only method of extracting nutrients from discharges will be reverse osmosis. Under the new rules, sewage plants must first make sure their facilities meet advanced wastewater treatment (AWT) standards and then must install a new reverse osmosis plant to treat the discharge from their AWT plant. Storm sewers and drainage ditches will need to have their flows redirected to a reverse osmosis plant for treatment.
The costs of this effort for the entire State of Florida will be well over a trillion dollars, some say. But I believe the EPA does not understand this. To bring this number into perspective, monthly utility bills will likely double, and property taxes will have to quadruple.
All these costs are verifiable - and would only result in treatment of sources that account for a fraction of the nitrogen and potassium load entering our water at any point. The major sources of the discharge of these nutrients - runoff from yards, discharge from wetlands, evaporation, septic tank leaks and water that flows into Florida from other states - will not be reduced in any way under the new rule.
And, in a difficult climate for businesses, one of the Florida's largest and most politically influential corporations is at the center of the objections. The Mosaic Company, which is the world's largest producer of phosphate and second-largest producer of potash">http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potash">potash, which together are the source of much of the nitrogen- and potassium-rich fertilizer purchased and deployed around the world, will clearly suffer as a result.
In Florida, one of grain giant Cargill's phosphate fertilizer businesses was able to shrug off the 2004 collapse of its holding pond south of Tampa, which dumped 60 million gallons of phosphate waste from a Hillsborough County Cargill plant into Archie Creek and on into Hillsborough Bay. As the nitrogen was slowly carried 40 to 50 miles out to sea, blooms formed and started moving south over the intervening months; soon, huge blooms of red tide that closed beaches. The ugly smell stunk up coastal cities like Bradenton, Sarasota and Venice through the precious winter months of the 2005 tourist season.
That spill was like the BP Gulf oil disaster, but quieter, less publicized and never clearly tied to Cargill. Unlike BP, Cargill never took responsibility for the red tide that resulted, and it advertises with or underwrites activities of many who impacted the catastrophe, including the Sierra Club.
Mosaic, a Cargill rival that employs 7,400 people in eight countries, lost an appeal July 30 in Jacksonville federal court against an injunction won by the Sierra Club and two other environmental groups to stop its development of a new potash mine in 483 acres of wetlands and 56,666 feet of streams that feed into the Peace River in Hardee County, Fla., whose waters flow into the Gulf Coast estuaries of Charlotte County. The company, the world's largest producer of phosphate-based fertilizer, would have derived about a third of its production from the mine.
Mosaic announced in early August that it will close the South Fort Meade operation in Hardee County in September and lay off 221 workers there. On Aug. 16, however, it appealed to be allowed to extend its mining into an additional nine acres of wetlands that already had been disturbed in northern Hardee County for four months. The Sierra Club opposes the extension.
It troubles me even more that the EPA is abandoning a proven method for addressing nitrogen and potassium loads. For years, the State of Florida has followed the EPA mandate to methodically examine water bodies to determine specific characteristics and needs, and then establish programs to improve water quality.
This process works, I believe. People have faith in it, and it represents a point of community pride wherever it has been used. Now EPA wants to abandon it all for what many feel is a proscriptive and draconian standard that will not - and cannot - improve the water quality of all Florida's richly varied bodies of water.
When all is said and done, Florida, and only Florida, will be required to spend upwards of a trillion dollars to comply with the new standard. For this, it may receive nothing - while residents of every other state get a free pass.
Richard F. Griswold is a registered professional engineer who serves as general manager of Destin Water Users Inc., a member-owned water and wastewater utility in Destin, Florida.