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HomeScuba DivingThe Keys Marine Sanctuary Threatened by Sewage

The Keys Marine Sanctuary Threatened by Sewage

Hurricane Georges had just passed Florida’s Key Largo in November 1998 when Chris Rich, a geologist with the United States Geological Service (USGS) Center for Coastal Geology and Regional Marine Studies, dove down to observe the coral reef.

"It was beautiful, all the algae had been blown off the coral, and their surfaces were free to breathe," says Rich.

Chris Rich, is part of a USGS geological team studying nutrients in the Florida Keys and Bay since 1992, and what they have found is algae is killing off the coral and sea grass in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, threatening the habitat of protected endangered species. ( and

According to USGS groundwater monitoring tests, sewage waste from municipal Class V underground injection control (UIC) wells, on site disposal systems (OSDS), and illegal cesspits servicing approximately 2.5 million annual tourists and 85,000 residents is carried by groundwater offshore, and the waste’s high nutrient levels of nitrates and phosphates are stimulating algal growth that suffocate coral and seagrass.

"Algae only grows in nutrient rich waters, and using dyes to track Class V UIC (package treatment plant) well flow we found the dye in offshore waters in less than an hour," says Rich.

The scale of sewage pollution destroying the fragile habitat of the Sanctuary and threatening the tourist economy is huge.

USGS Coastal Research Center surveys report there are approximately 1,000 Class V UIC wells, 30,000 septic systems, and 10,000 illegal cesspits discharging sewage into groundwater that flows into coastal waters. In Key West, 18 million gallons of secondary treated sewage is discharged daily one half mile offshore via an outfall pipe.

Studies conducted by University of South Florida, University of Florida, and the USGS using viral tracers found a direct connection between injected sewage waste and viruses, fecal bacteria, and protozoa found in offshore waters posing a threat to human health -particularly to those who engage in recreational activities in polluted marine waters.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Tourist Economy

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was established by federal legislation in 1990 and encompasses over 2,800 square nautical miles of nearshore waters on both sides of the 220 mile long Florida Key Island chain. It includes the nation’s only barrier coral reef, mangrove islands, seagrass meadows, and critical habitat for such endangered species as the manatee, sea turtles (4 species), whales(6 species), the American crocodile, Wood Stork, and Johnson Sea Grass. (,, and

Over 2.54 million tourists visit the Keys each year, and protecting the low nutrient water quality in the Sanctuary which supports living coral reefs and delicate ecosystems has become a priority in the region to maintain the tourist economy.

According to an economic survey of the tourist industry and it’s reliance on recreation and the Sanctuary’s resources funded by the Monroe County Tourist Development, Nature Conservancy, Florida Keys Initiative, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), water recreational activities sustains the majority of $1.3 billion spent in Monroe County and 46% of the employment in the Keys. (

"We are involved in promoting tourism, and clean water and proper sewage treatment is a vital part of attracting visitors and preserving the quality of life we are promoting," says Monty Jackson, Executive Director of the Key West Business Guild.

Cesspits Banned, Building Permits Capped, and Class V UIC Well Program Expands

To protect the Sanctuary from sewage pollution Congress has directed the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to develop a Water Quality Protection Program (WQPP). Since 1996 a WQPP Steering Committee has recommended priority corrective actions and compliance schedules addressing pollution sources and aims to restore and maintain the balance of life found in and on the water.

"We have recommended the Monroe County develop a waste water master plan for different sewage treatment areas to determine which system would best treat sewage to reduce nutrients," says Fred McManus, EPA Florida Keys Coordinator.

Under Monroe County’s WQPP, Comprehensive Land Use Program, and Rate of Growth Ordinance, government officials are fighting to curtail the sewage pollution with stricter nutrient removal treatment regulations. Illegal cesspits have been banned, and building permits have been capped at 255 per year with each permit obtained under a cesspit replacement credit system.

"The EPA has issued a $4.326 million grant to the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority for the planning and construction of treatment package plants (Class V UIC wells) in Marathon Key using best available technology (BAT) standards to replace the high number of illegal cesspits," says McManus. An Interim Management Group is designating all harborages with no-discharge zone requirements and will establish mobile pump-out facilities financed with funding from the Clean Vessel Act.

The Governor’s commission for a Sustainable South Florida has recommended "priority for implementation should be given to areas of the Florida Keys that have been identified as "hot spots" by the WQPP. In addition, because increased development presents an additional threat to the quality of water in Florida Bay and the Florida Keys, adequate wastewater treatment must not inadvertently increase development pressure in the Keys."

In January 1999 the commission also recommended the water quality concerns in the Sanctuary and corrective actions recommended by the WQPP become a part of the South Florida systems-wide water quality plan recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers $7.8 Restudy (, and called for the funding and implementation of wastewater and stormwater improvements approved by the WQPP Steering Committee to begin without waiting for the systemwide water quality plan.

AWT vrs. BAT and the Funding Debate

Environmentalists are calling for tertiary Advance Waste Treatment (AWT) sewage standards to be imposed on the Keys.

EPA and local government officials say the financial funding available will only support secondary Best Available Technologies (BAT), but USGS and EPA research studies already have shown the existing 1,000 Class V UIC wells in the Keys are treating sewage to secondary levels using BAT and the waste is destroying the Sanctuary.

"The dilemma is property and hotel owners with cesspits, OSDS, and Class V UIC wells don’t have viable central treatment systems that would haul sewage away, so when your choices are limited the best solution is to remove nitrates and phosphates from the sewage before it is injected using Advance Wastewater Treatment (AWT), says Dee Von Quirely, spokeswoman for the Florida Keys environmental organization Reef Relief.

AWT and BAT levels ares defined by the EPA and FDEP as:

Carbonaceous Biochemical Oxygen Demand (CBOD5) AWT-5 mg/l vrs. BAT-10mg/l

Total Suspended Solids (TSS) AWT-5 mg/l vrs. BAT-10mg/l

Total Nitrogen (TN) AWT-3mg/l vrs. BAT-10mg/l

Total Phosphorus (TP) AWT-1mg/l vrs. BAT-1mg/l

Basic Level Disinfection

"We want as close as possible a no-new-net nutrient system, and only AWT provides that, and that’s the standard the Governor and Cabinet adopted in 1997," says Charles Pattison, Executive Director of the not-for-profit 1000 Friends of Florida. ( and and

George S. Garrett, Director of Marine Resources for Monroe County, defends the Keys current use of Class V UIC wells, and says a lack funds are not available for AWT levels.

"In 1993 the Florida Department of Health passed a ruling requiring tertiary Advanced Waste Treatment for all sewage disposal in the county, but we couldn’t enforce it," he says.

"Cesspits and septic systems don’t work here because of the high water table leaching nutrients to our 700 canals and onshore waters. Class V wells injecting 60 feet down have more of a dilution effect, and are a better way to dispose of sewage given equal volumes and treatment – but yes you are still dumping nutrients offshore with them," says Garrett.

Garret admits in practice AWT would be achieved if an estimated $1 billion were available, but since March 1998 the WQPP Steering Committee and the EPA have focused on more affordable secondary BAT levels of treatment.

In March 1999 the Governor’s Office ruled WQPP was behind in implementing even their secondary BAT projected goals.

"Due to a series of plans and failure to progress we are looking at an all out building moratorium if we don’t enact the measures called for under the county’s Comprehensive Growth Plan and Water Quality Protection Program," says Nora Williams, Monroe County Commissioner.

According to Commissioner Williams, the geology of the Keys has made the WQPP Steering Committee’s priority of replacing illegal cesspits with Class V UIC wells in WQPP designated "hot spots" extremely expensive to treat.

"Class V wells (servicing hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, and other commercial sites) already handle the vast majority of the waste from the 2.5 million annual tourists who visit the Keys, and we are only looking to treat sewage using BAT at secondary levels," says Williams.

USGS and EPA Differ on the Extent of Sewage Damage to Sanctuary

With the EPA and the WQPP positioning themselves strongly behind secondary BAT treatment levels for the Florida Keys researchers are claiming EPA funded scientific studies are misrepresenting and underplaying the nutrient loading damage to the Sanctuary from sewage.

The USGS, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution (a not-for-profit), University of South Florida, University of Florida, and Reef Relief studies support the contention human sewage nutrient loading with nitrates and phosphates migrating through the groundwater is the principal cause of algal, bacteria, and virus growth in offshore waters killing coral and seagrass.

"The situation in the Florida Bay and the Sanctuary has gone from bad to worse and from crisis to catastrophe," says Dr.Brian LaPoint, associate scientist with the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution based in North Fort Pierce, Florida. ()

"Chlorophyll in water is the best indicator for eutrophication and nutrification in this region and studies by Florida International University and the Seagrass Ecosystems Research funded by the EPA are showing levels 30% less then everyone else’s results," he says. The USGS takes a more moderate point of view in the debate. "Reefs are dying all over the Caribbean, and that makes it difficult to single out one single cause of decline for seagrass and coral in the Sanctuary," Gene Shinn, Project Chief at the USGS and life time resident of the Key. "But, this area is a nutrient deficient region and our monitoring studies have revealed high elevated nutrients and fecal bacteria in groundwaters 1/2 to 1 mile offshore." he says.

"There’s a lot of debate on the waste’s impact beyond that distance where it is harder to prove nutrient loading and bacteria are contributing to the reef and seagrass die off," says Shinn.

EPA funded research teams at the FDEP Florida Marine Research Institute, Seagrasss Ecosystems Laboratory, and the Florida International University don’t monitor groundwater migration of sewage, but they claim the sewage nutrient loading is limited to 100 meters offshore. This group receives the majority of the federal and state funding according to Gene Shinn.

"Injected sewage does migrate, but it is tremendously diluted," says Fred McManus, "and tests show most phosphates in sewage are stripped out in the carbonate base and the nitrates have no impact."

"The algae buildup on coral is from deep water upwelling of nutrients from the Gulf of Mexico," he says.

EPA research scientists admit sewage waste is entering canals and offshore waters from Class V UIC wells and illegal cesspits, and causing biological problems to near shore waters, but argue Dr.Brian LaPoint and Gene Shinn’s studies are too extreme.

"Data of reef destruction from Dr. Brian LaPoint and Gene Shinn is a stretch," says Dr. Bill Kruczinski, EPA Research Scientist.

"USGS studies indicate heavy ammonia loading (an indicator of human sewage) with nutrients discharging into the coral reefs, but that occurs throughout the state and the US," he says.

Dr.Kruczinski notes that since 1992 the EPA has funded over $1 million to address sewage pollution from cesspits, OSDS, and Class V UIC wells and warns at the current rate an increasing cascade effect will occur further and further offshore.

The Seagrass Ecosystem Research Lab research studies funded by the EPA report a similar position.

"Sewage nutrient loading is only within 100 yards of shoreline in the Keys where it is having the most damaging effect on seagrass communities due to very low mobility, and it isn’t the nitrates/phosphorus which controls algae build up," says Jim Fourqurean, a biologist with the Florida International University and the Seagrass Ecoystems Research Lab. (

"That’s not to mean sewage waste won’t spread, but in my view the data on the damage to reef growth varies and damage reports tend to be overplayed," says Fourqurean.

Government officials of the City of Key West are not taking sides in the scientific debate over sewage, but they are in the process of spending $50 million to improve their sewer systems, designating no discharge harbor zones, eliminating all septic/cesspit systems, and implementing for Advanced Water Treatment (AWT) treatment levels.

"The EPA told us terciary treatment was over kill, but water quality is very important to the city," says John Jones, Assistant Manager of the City of Key West. "We are going to convert our secondary treatment outflow sewage disposal system to a Class 1 deep injection well with AWT standards," he says.

"The rest of the Keys could reach tertiary treatment standards if they had the money, and a toll on US 1 could help so long as the state uses the toll money to support sewage systems improvement and not any other boondoggles," says Jones.

The Toll on US 1 Debate

County and EPA officials admit the financial burden to upgrade sewage treatment in the Florida Keys is too much for only the 85,000 residents to finance, and a proposal for a toll on US 1 has been presented to the Governor’s Office only to be removed by opposition and debate.

"We must have a toll on US 1 into the Keys so that the very visitors who double and triple the effective population can help pay to remediate the impacts on our resource base," says Captain Ed Davidson, former Chairman of Monroe County Zoning Board, and the Comprehensive Plan Advisory Committee.

"There are no billion dollars to pay for improving waste water treatment in the Keys, and the only real cure is to buy back the undeveloped lots in the Keys where we have already exceeded capacity limits with lesser portions for water quality uses," he says.

"Otherwise, continued over population will just make things worse in the aggregate," says Captain Ed, a board member of the Florida Audubon Society.

According to members of the WQPP Steering Committee the tolls’ strongest opponent is the politically influential Key West Chamber of Commerce who fear a reduction in tourist travel.

"Our position is a lot more research needs to be done to look into all appropriate funding for sewage treatment improvements before a toll is imposed," says John Dolan-Heitlinger, president of the Key West Chamber of Commerce.

"The folks who have proposed a toll don’t have a handle on how much projects are going to cost, and it isn’t clear other funding sources are available," he says.

Tony Iroci, a spokesman for the Monroe County Commercial Fisherman Association and a member of the National Marine Sanctuary Council says ultimately with or without the toll the marine resources of the Sanctuary are slipping away, and so are the tourists.

"It’s an old story of the scientists and officials being pissed off with each other over different points of view, and there is confusion on which direction to take," he says.

"But water quality is key…no water quality…no reef…no fish, and if the deterioration continues you’re going to lose tourists and the Sanctuary," says Iroci.

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