Unmanned surface vessel (USV) in Cudjoe Key deploying a submersible fluorometer to measure dye concentration
Unmanned surface vessel (USV) in Cudjoe Key deploying a submersible fluorometer to measure dye concentration

by JD Adler…

March 5, 2015: A team of environmental scientists led by Dr. Briceno of the Florida International University have gathered under blue skies on Cudjoe Key. Their mission: to determine whether the shallow injection wells installed for use in the Cudjoe regional wastewater treatment plant will successfully contain wastewater or whether the ground will prove too porous allowing partially treated sewage to migrate to nearby national marine sanctuary surface waters.

By March 19th they would have already found the answer, as described in the report released April 11.

“We conclude that there are convincing evidences that injected freshwater at the current injection depth of 80’ to 120’, and at the experimental injection rate of 420 gal/min, readily migrates upward and then laterally to the unconfined shallow aquifer and eventually to surface waters. These results are similar to those found by other researchers elsewhere in the Florida Keys.”

~ Design and Implementation of Dye-tracer Injection Test, Cudjoe Key, Florida Keys, Final Report

Plastic containers trapped by the flowmeter caused flooding of injection well area. click to emlarge
Plastic containers trapped by the flowmeter caused flooding of injection well area. click to enlarge

First, they inject regular tap water, to flush the site and prepare for the test. Unfortunately the injection valve is blocked by garbage and the water surges back out like a fountain, creating a puddle alongside the site.

They remove the trash and begin again. First the flush, then dye is injected so that the path of the flow can be traced. Then large quantities of fresh water are injected to simulate wastewater and drive the dye through the system. Four offshore sites (W1-W4) are monitored over several weeks to see if the dye will appear.

surface bubbles click to enlarge
surface bubbles
click to enlarge

At first everything seems normal. Then the adjacent, “accidental” puddle begins to bubble. First just a few bubbles, then more and more. Once the air is depleted and water pushes through, mud begins to rise to the surface; signs that the injected water is finding a connection below the surface and forcing out trapped air. If not for the blockage that caused the unintended backflow that created the puddle, might this connection have gone unnoticed?

Time passes and small amounts of dye begin to show in the nearest surface waters being tested, W1 (66 ft.) and W4 (163 ft.). These are referred to as “anomalous readings” because they differ from the pre-test, baseline readings, but they show only minor levels at this point because the fresh water, floating atop the higher density saline ocean water at a rate of 3-11 ft per hour, is quickly pushing the dye beyond the closest sites. More distant sites will have much higher readings that will continue to increase as the test progresses.

The estimated underground flow velocities reach signficantly high values (up to 23 meters per hour or about 75 ft per hour).

Figure 26: Flow velocity vectors showing relative flow velocities in Cudjoe Key click to enlarge
Figure 26: Flow velocity vectors showing relative flow velocities in Cudjoe Key click to enlarge

The presence of these anomalous readings suggests that the rock layer, mostly limestone, between the aquifer and the surface waters, has been affected by karsting; a type of erosion affecting carbonated rock, caused by rainwater and other influences, that creates dissolution (i.e. sinkholes, caves, etc) of the material so that it becomes porous.

In the course of preparing this test and the report, satellite images, logged data, and other reports were compiled by Dr. Briceno to create a first attempt at a conceptual model of the subsurface area below the Cudjoe Key treatment plant. As the model shows there is a great deal of karsting beneath the surface.

Figure 8: Underground Geology Model developed from remote sensing interpretation well-logging information, field work and regional studies. click to enlarge
Figure 8: Underground Geology Model developed from remote sensing interpretation well-logging information, field work and regional studies. click to enlarge

March 19th: Dr. Briceno informs the FKAA of his preliminary findings, at which point FKAA schedules an end to the test, on March 26th, and recommends that Monroe County authorize funding for a deep injection well.

April 11: the final report is submitted to FKAA detailing the results of the test: there is a connection between the shallow injection wells and surface waters in the area. Briceno recommends implementing a deep injection well in order to protect the local environment. This was welcome news to the plethora of community activists and organizations that had been fighting for exactly that, for well over a year.

On April 14, Monroe County Commissioners vote unanimously to approve an additional $7.1 million in funding for the project to uproarious applause from attending community members. FKAA Director Kirk Zuelch signals that this would be added to funding already on hand for the project. Two contractors, which he left unnamed for now, are expected to place bids once the process opens.

Conclusions [from the final report]:

“The Dye-tracer Injection Test described and documented above had one specific objective …’to either confirm or rule-out the existence of hydraulic connection between the shallow injection wells discharge and surface waters.’ We think that objective was achieved by documenting evidences that injected freshwater at the current injection depth of 80’ to 120’, and at the experimental rate of about 420 gal/min, will readily migrate upward and then laterally to the unconfined shallow aquifer and eventually to surface waters.

Two lines of evidence, support this conclusion, first is the physical evidence derived from the Freshwater Injection Test with the appearance of massive bubbling of displaced air coming from underground once injection began. These air bubbles are thought to be driven by ascending injected freshwater. But the most compelling evidence of connection was the venting of muddy freshwater from the bottom of a puddle next to the injection well. Those venting springs were necessarily connected to a high hydraulic head, above ground level, and disconnected to tidal fluctuations at the time of occurrence.

The second line of evidence comes from physical-chemical information, the appearance of dye at concentrations which were statistically anomalous following dye-injection. The estimated underground flow velocities reached very high values (up to 23 meters per hour or about 75 ft per hour), indicating the existence of a system controlled by large solution features and not inter-grain porosity. Results are similar to those found by other researchers elsewhere in the Florida Keys.” [emphasis added]

The Shallow Wells

Still, that is not the end of the story. According to Zuelch, FKAA intends to continue with its planned use of shallow wells during the interim period while the deep injection well is being permitted and installed. Zuelch stated that he will move forward unless told otherwise, “I will follow the lead of the DEP.”

Attorneys Caron Balkany and Christopher Byrd are continuing to pursue a lawsuit against federal agencies under the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] on behalf of local fisherman Mike Laudicinia as well as an Administrative challenge of the DEP’s permit allowing FKAA to utilize shallow well injection at the Cudjoe plant.

Dump the Pumps, a local group opposed to the installation of low-pressure grinder pumps on private lands and the use of shallow well injection, has also announced their intent to file a suit. Both allege that there has been a failure to conduct proper studies regarding the environmental impacts of these shallow wells and that the FKAA has used “fake” documents in order to bypass that requirement.

FKAA insists it had done its due diligence and the document in question is not “fake”, just misunderstood. FKAA Director Zuelch argues that the presence of the word “draft” on the cover sheet should have informed any reader it was not official. Zuelch also stands by the position that use of the shallow wells, while now clearly not the best longterm solution, would still be far better for the environment than relying upon the cesspits and septic tanks currently in use for the next two years:

“This system removes 97-98% of the nitrates, it can be used to water the grass, wash your car, boats. It’s not even comparable to the untreated waste… It’s counterproductive not to treat… environmentally –  it makes extremely good sense. The suggestion that the cesspits are a better idea is total, absolute nonsense.”

An overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorus can cause blooms of algae that turn the water noticeably green.
An overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorus can cause blooms of algae that turn the water noticeably green.

While it’s true that the plant will treat the water to an Advanced Wastewater Treatment (AWT) level, which is approved for uses such as irrigation, critics argue the injection system is not necessarily better than the on site systems currently spread throughout the area. They argue that by gathering wastewater from thousands of homes, treating it, and then injecting the combined partially treated, chlorinated sewage into four shallow wells, the negative impacts to the Cudjoe plant area will be greatly increased due to the resulting concentration of over a million gallons a day of partially treated   effluent into one single area.  They also question whether or not injecting the water into shallow wells will cause increased leaching of toxic pollutants found in the abandoned landfill that lies adjacent to the plant.

What the recent dye test proves is that the wastewater will escape and reach the groundwater and eventually the ocean. Florida law allows AWT to contain 10 times the nitrogen and 100 times the phosphorous considered acceptable for near-shore waters. This same law states that, “Except as provided in subparagraph 3. for backup wells, if the design capacity of the facility is equal to or greater than 1 million gallons per day, each primary injection well must be cased to a minimum depth of 2,000 feet or to such greater depth as may be required by department rule.” According to shallow well opponents, the CRW is expected to far exceed the 1 million gallon per day benchmark and shallow wells should never have been an option.

So, while cesspits and septic tanks are clearly not optimal, the question remains as to whether use of a shallow well system in the interim is even lawful.  The answer lies, at least in part, in an environmental impact study that, according to US Fish and Wildlife Service, is required by federal law, but has never been done.

Adding to the confusion is a series of actions taken by the FKAA over the years which have raised accusations of dishonesty.

  • In 2009 the requirement to publish notices regarding permits to do public works, in this case the Cudjoe treatment plant, in newspapers in the vicinity of the proposed project was bypassed by FKAA when it instead published the notice in a newspaper in Broward County.
  • In 2010 a draft environmental assessment was sent to the Army Corps of Engineers as part of a request for additional federal funding that essentially asked the Corps to perform an environmental impact study and sign off on the proposed assessment. Since no more funding was available, no study was conducted and the document was never even examined by the Corps. Yet the document appeared, subsequently, attached to other proposals with the Corps logo on it, including the final plan for the CRW and a request for DEP RESTORE Act funding that specifically referred to the document as “an Army Corps prepared draft.” Additionally, it appears the data in the 2010 “draft EA” was taken from a 2006 document the Army Corps did prepare for the South Florida Water Management District, as part of a larger, Keyswide assessment that did not include the Cudjoe plant.
  • In 2013 a letter was sent to Fish and Wildlife (FWS) by DEP requesting an environmental impact study. FWS did not respond, so rather than follow up and ensure the environment would be protected, government employees simply chose to interpret the lack of response as a go-ahead. A concept which has been refuted in a recent letter from the FWS to the EPA.
  • FKAA has consistently stated there was no federal funding involved, although it was confirmed by the DEP, on March 21, 2015, and by USFWS on April 9, 2015 that Monroe County did use federal funds for the CRW which were obtained from the Florida State Revolving Loan Fund.

Current Status

At this point, Monroe County has approved funding for a deep injection well, the FKAA intends to continue to move forward with the use of shallow wells as an interim system, two federal lawsuits are pending designed to prevent the use of the shallow wells until a federal environmental impact study can be done and the US Fish and Wildlife Service has sent a letter to the EPA recommending they look into assessing the environmental impact of the CRW, crediting community action for bringing it to their attention.

 

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