letter to the editor

An Open Letter to US Fish & Wildlife Services Regarding Cudjoe Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant

January 23, 2015

To: Cynthia Dohner, Regional Director, US Fish and Wildlife Services, [email protected]

CC: Ashleigh Blackford, Branch Lead, Planning and Resource Conservation –East, [email protected];
Nancy Finley, Refuge Manager, [email protected]; Brian Powell, USFW Biologist, [email protected]; Larry Williams, State Supervisor, South Florida Ecological Services Office, [email protected]

From: Caron Balkany, [email protected]

Re: Cudjoe Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant – shallow sewage wells

Director Dohner:

Undersigned counsel represents several residents in the Lower Florida Keys who are concerned about the environmental impacts from the proposed shallow sewage well injection for Cudjoe Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant. The owner of the Plant is Monroe County; Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority is building and will operate the Plant.

The Plant is expected to inject over 25 million gallons a month of partially treated sewage effluent into the porous limestone of Cudjoe Key. The four shallow wells are adjacent to Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and jurisdictional wetlands on Cudjoe Key.
My clients are concerned because we have been unable to locate any documentation that the owner or operator of the Plant has asked the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to consult about the potential environmental impact to the many threatened and endangered species and their habitat from this planned shallow injection well process.

This project is the beneficiary of federal funding. It has been ongoing in its design and permitting since at least 2008. But the manner in which the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority has scoped, planned and implemented the project appears to us to have obscured a clear nexus for USFWS involvement.

I have been communicating with your Refuge Manager, Nancy Finley, about this concern for some time. She has answered many questions and been very helpful. I have provided her with documentation and information as well, which I believe she has shared with other USFWS personnel.

On January 21,2015, I spoke with Nancy Finley and Endangered Species Biologist Brian Powell about my clients’ concerns. I was advised that they had discussed our concerns and documentation with Ashleigh Blackford, Branch Lead, Planning and Resource Conservation –East, South Florida Ecological Services Office. I was informed that USFWS will be in contact next week with the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority to discuss the need for consultation with USFWS. I am advised that the position of the USFWS is that the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority must show hard evidence that the shallow sewage wells will not allow contamination from ground water or landfill leachate, nor allow the less saline sewage effluent, to impact protected lands/waters of the Refuge, USFWS jurisdictional wetlands or near shore waters, and must also provide hard scientific evidence that there will be no other impact from the use of the shallow wells. Otherwise, the Aqueduct Authority must seek alternative solutions including the use a deep well for effluent disposal as a conservative minimization action.

I believe this is the appropriate response to the situation, and has hopefully avoided the need for litigation. Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority has stated that it intends to start using the shallow wells within a few months, so I hope the process can be initiated quickly, and that no sewage disposal will commence unless and until that process has been properly completed.

I would like to thank you for your agency’s responsiveness to a problem not of its making. I would also like to take this opportunity to provide you with some of the background on this project, and why we are so concerned about the environmental impacts.

The Cudjoe Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant will collect the wastewater from a population of 14,000 people and commercial and industrial establishments spread out over this 28 mile portion of the island chain and then treat it to Advanced Wastewater Standards (AWT). AWT does not remove all nutrients, which will remain in the effluent at significant levels. Additionally, pharmaceuticals, endocrine disrupters, home products and the like will remain in the effluent. The Plant would then concentrate this huge volume of freshwater effluent in shallow wells in a small 225 foot long stretch of porous limestone approximately 75 feet from the mangroves fringing Cudjoe Basin. The wells are drilled to 120 feet and cased to 80 feet in the porous limestone under the former Monroe County landfill.

On one side of the former landfill where the wells are sited are wetlands within your agency’s jurisdiction, as well as lands/waters contained within Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge entrusted to your agency. On the sea-ward edge of the former landfill and shallow injection well sites are mangroves and a shallow marine estuary, part of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

The owner of the Plant, Monroe County, has been advised by the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority – without any consultation with your agency – that a deep well is not required for the injection of partially-treated sewage effluent and that shallow sewage wells will suffice.

We therefore sought scientific review. A hydrogeologist, a geologist/ engineer, and a marine biologist, all well respected in their fields and familiar with the Lower Florida Keys , have advised us that the impact of shallow sewage well injection to threatened and endangered species and their habitat will be significant.

The silver rice rat, the marsh rabbit and the Key Deer – listed as federally endangered species – all use the Cudjoe Key wetlands as foraging and reproductive habitat. The endangered and threatened wading birds from Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge use the wetland habitat, as do other migratory birds protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Migratory and wading birds also use the near shore coastal waters, as do many marine organisms that serve as the all-important base of the food chain. These near shore waters are very sensitive and important nursery areas for juvenile fish, with extensive sea grass beds. There is potential for impacts to the newly federally listed Acropora coral species from these activities as well.

The shallow sewage injection wells will force the partially treated effluent and the landfill-contaminated ground water to the surface waters, including the jurisdictional wetlands and surface waters of Cudjoe Basin and the offshore waters. The geological composition of the Florida Keys is a karst geology, characterized by conduits, voids and channels which allow the subsurface movement of water to flow quickly to the surface, strongly affected by tides and rain water recharge.

With the increased gradient from at minimum 25 million gallons per month of freshwater effluent, the already contaminated groundwater will rise to the surface water and to the wetlands, along with huge volumes of partially treated freshwater sewage effluent.

The partially treated effluent will be high in nutrients, and will contain pharmaceuticals, hormones, endocrine disrupters and other substances which will be harmful to threatened and endangered species. The landfill-contaminated ground water contains lead, nickel, chromium, copper and other aquatic toxicants. These aquatic toxicants will cause acute and chronic exposure to sensitive biological receptors and will bioconcentrate in biota which could affect the upper trophic levels, including migratory birds and Key Deer where they forage.

In addition to the impact of the aquatic toxicants from the contaminated groundwater, the large volume of freshwater will impact the shallow marine ecosystems as well as the wetland ecosystems. The partially treated effluent will be high in nutrients, which will promote the growth of dangerous algal mats, which kill off the marine invertebrates and small fishes which are the necessary food for migratory birds, marine mammals, and the protected wading birds in the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge. In the jurisdictional wetlands, it will also produce algal mats and this will have the same impact within the wetlands on the marine invertebrates and small fishes which sustain federally endangered upper trophic levels.

A deep well is an alternative to the shallow sewage wells and will better protect the Refuge, jurisdictional wetlands and the near shore habitat for protected and endangered species. Monroe County has acknowledged that it has the funds for the deep well, but has been advised by Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority – without consultation with USFWS – that a deep well is not required.

We look forward to a thorough biological consultation between your agency and the Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority. We believe there is no scientific data that the planned shallow sewage well injection will have no impact on the endangered and threatened species and their habitat. We hope you will require the use of a deep well for the sewage effluent as a conservative minimization activity.

Thank you again for your agency’s responsiveness.

Facebook Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.