Water Quality Disaster: Whistleblower Accuses Department of Health

whistle blow

by Bud Meaker and Arnaud Girard…….

A whistleblower claims the Department of Health (DOH) has turned a blind eye for years on thousands of gallons of sewage that has been seeping into Florida Keys waters.

“It’s their duty, their legal obligation under Florida Statutes to monitor the performance of all on-site sewer systems in the Keys, but they don’t do it,” said the insider to The Blue Paper, “It makes me sick.”

The source asked to remain anonymous, but this is what we have been able to verify:

Multi-million dollar grants from EPA have apparently been tainted due to misrepresentations regarding DOH’s performance monitoring of on-site sewer treatment systems.

DOH fails to require testing of effluent samples for onsite sewer systems countywide in violation of state regulations and has even signed a lax agreement with FKAA waiving the requirement altogether.

But lets start at the beginning.

1999, Linda Eng. Linda was the “tall, tanned, beautiful woman from Norway” who captured the imagination of millions when she was described, in a New York Times article, swimming off Smathers Beach, splashing, laughing, and flashing her 60-watt smile until a passerby informed her that the water was contaminated with human feces. A lot of it.

That was the year the coral began to die along with seagrass beds and fish. Many beaches were closed due to fecal contamination and even the seemingly unassailable waters of the ocean began to turn from turquoise blue to pea soup green.

Scientists pointed the finger at unbridled development and a dysfunctional sewer system that allowed harmful nutrients to flow directly into Keys’ ocean waters.

So that year the Florida Legislature amended Florida Statue Chapter 381. In short, it forced every sewer system in the Keys to meet a high standard of treatment for sewage effluent, setting very specific maximum levels of nitrogen and phosphorous and requiring the County to be fully compliant by July of 2010. [For some older systems this deadline has since been extended to December 2015.]

While DEP was put in charge of systems producing more than 10,000 gallons of residential sewage effluent per day, the DOH had been made responsible for all of the small on-site systems for individual households. In 2012, according to the EPA, there were still about 30,000 of these “decentralized” systems in the Keys.

According to a 2001 study, initially published by FSU, bringing these small on-site systems into compliance with wastewater treatment standards is crucial for improving water quality. At the time, H Darden, wrote, “EPA estimates that the septic tanks and cesspits alone introduce over 1,200 pounds of nitrogen and 326 pounds of phosphorus each day into the surrounding marine environment, accounting for over half of the total nutrient loading in [Keys] waters.”*

DOH Mission

Florida Statute 381.0065 4(l)(5) and (6) leave no ambiguity as to DOH’s mission:

5. Onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems must be monitored for total nitrogen and total phosphorus concentrations as required by department rule.

6. The department shall enforce proper installation, operation, and maintenance of onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems pursuant to this chapter, including ensuring that the appropriate level of treatment described in subparagraph 2. is met.

Yet, our whistleblower assures us that DOH doesn’t require sample testing for any of the on-site systems in the Keys and that the agency doesn’t even conduct the required DOH yearly inspections.

In fact, when Blue Paper contributor Bud Meaker asked Monroe County DOH representative, Jane Parthemore, for records of effluent sample testing for on-site systems he was informed that DOH has no such data and does not require effluent sample testing.

How monitoring of treatment capabilities of on-site systems could take place without effluent sample testing is anybody’s guess. At press time DOH had not returned our calls regarding this issue.

The Controversial $3.65 million grant

DOH’s admission concerning a lack of effluent sample testing becomes even more disturbing when one looks into a multi-million dollar grant application filed with the EPA with DOH support.

EPA awarded FKAA a $3.65 million grant “to demonstrate decentralized wastewater treatment in the lower Florida Keys” and show “the capabilities and advantages of decentralized treatment systems with centralized management.”

These small individual systems are meant to treat wastewater in areas that are too remote to be reached by centralized sewer plants. They are located in areas called “cold spots.” The ultimate goal is to hook up as many Florida Keys homes as possible to centralized sewer systems; however, in 2012 EPA estimated that 30,000 homes in the Keys were still not connected to central sewer and only 3065 had on-site sewer permits.

The year 2000 Monroe County Sanitary Wastewater Master Plan estimated that 1080 homes would remain unconnected to centralized treatment plants. Today the number of “cold spots” is still fluctuating. The $3.65 million EPA grant is aimed at comparing and evaluating systems designed to meet Florida Keys unique conditions and, according to the grant application, will include “the review of performance sample data collected by the Department of Health, from other relevant OWNR [On-site Nutrient Reduction] technologies.”

On the good faith of that commitment, EPA approved the grant in 2010. However, a document signed by DOH shows that the agency entered into an agreement with FKAA, waiving testing requirements for the on-site systems that FKAA will be installing.

Apparently the DOH has for years misrepresented its commitment to monitoring the compliance of on-site sewer systems in the Florida Keys. In a 2012 EPA survey, Case Studies of Individual and Clustered (Decentralized) Wastewater Management Programs / State and Community Management Approaches, Monroe County appears as one of the stellar shepherds of the environment. On page 20 it appears the EPA was led to believe that DOH requires and maintains a database of sample testing results for every on-site sewer system in the Keys:

“The maintenance entity submits inspection reports and sampling results to the state as specified in the operating permit.”

But, apparently no sampling records exist.

The Failure

Fifteen years after Linda Eng ran away from Smather’s Beach searching for a shower and a bottle of disinfectant, the coral reef is practically dead.

Last April the research vessel Baseline Explorer made a sensation on Stock Island with its two deep dive submarines. During an interview onboard, Chief Scientist, Dr. Todd R. Kincaid, indicated that the Florida Keys reef tract was in such dire shape that in some circles it is no longer considered a viable reef ecosystem.

“I had forgotten how beautiful it used to be,” says Sean Matthews, a longtime resident who just came back from a sailing trip through the Bahamas, “All that coral, all those colors in crystal clear water. I worried at one point I was going to run aground because I could see coral heads beneath the boat. In fact, I was in 30 feet of water. That’s how clear the water was.”

Two months ago the ground began bubbling up around a controversial sewer injection well on Cudjoe Key. The shallow well, dug in the shadow of a mountain of trash, had been fully permitted by DEP. And DEP bureaucrats were still defending their permit as the water was shooting up out of the ground. It took a vote by the County Commission to override DEP’s indifference. The county is now funding a deep injection well for the Cudjoe Regional plant. It will replace the shallow wells that many residents believe would have pushed millions of gallons of effluent through the porous base of the toxic dump.

This week we learn that the Department of Health appears to be failing in its mission to monitor on-site sewer treatment systems.

So what is going on with the bureaucrats in charge of protecting our fragile and priceless environment?

Stay tuned.

UPDATE:  The Blue Paper has confirmed that, subsequent to the whistleblower raising the issue, FKAA made a decision to conduct sample testing on the onsite systems installed with EPA grant funding despite the waiver afforded them by the Department of Health.  Bravo whistleblower and FKAA.


*H Darden, Wastewater in the Florida Keys: A call for stricter regulation of nonpoint source pollution: Journal of Land Use and Environmental Law, 2001

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9 thoughts on “Water Quality Disaster: Whistleblower Accuses Department of Health

  1. Good article! Please clarify what or which Department of Health (DOH) you are referring to in the article. I am assuming it is the Monroe County Department of Health?

  2. The Monroe County DOH used to require tests back when they first started selecting victims to accuse of having a cesspit so they could force them to install an aerobic system with an additional nutrient removal tank. I think that was 1999.

    The purpose of the “cess pit elimination program” was more to gain “cess pit credits” that could be used by favored developers for a building permit than for water quality. If the intention was truly to prevent sewage from reaching the ocean, then they would have made an effort with Pigeon Key’s cess pit that has been researched and found to definitely be polluting. Instead, they selected “unknown” systems that were “presumed to be cess pits” that were often located far from the shoreline. Then they refused to accept proof that the presumed cess pit was actually a septic tank.

    A septic tank and drainfield that is far from shore will never have its freshwater effluent reach the ocean. This is not the mainland- fresh water does not keep going down unless forced. It floats on the denser saltwater-saturated ground. There are too many thirsty plants between the drainfield and the ocean, eager to suck up any freshwater riding above the salty ground water.

    The DOH selected the very few engineered on-site systems that could be installed, and threatened to come after the engineer signing off on the permit if the system did not get the desired results. In any event, not a single “engineered system” successfully met the required BAT standards for effluent.. So they just quit testing instead of admitting that their program was a .failure. Now, a license fee is paid and a government employee comes around yearly and asks “is it working okay for you?”

    Many of the engineered systems required a shallow well injection, which guarantees that the heavily chlorine poisoned effluent will enter into the tidal ground water where terrestrial plants cannot benefit. The high efficiency phosphorus and pathogen removal of a good drainfield is lost when a shallow injection well is used. My guess is that more harm than good was done by the inland conversions.

    As for Pigeon Key’s cess pit polluting? It still is. The BOCC has approved forcing No Name Key properties that do not have electric to install an electric grinder pump and the homeowner is tasked with how to power the abomination. Why doesn’t the County shows a little good faith and install a grinder pump on Pigeon Key to push the sewage to Marathon’s central treatment facilities instead of just dumping it in a hole in the ground a few feet from the shoreline? Or install a more contained on-site system. There is no sincere concern for water quality amongst the government agencies. If it will affect their budget, environmental concerns be damned. If it will increase income and power for them, they will push any program through claiming urgency for water quality…. and hardship on citizens be damned. It is disgusting in every way.

  3. How sad that turning a blind eye to impropriety has long been the banal operational mode of agency personnel responsible for water quality protection: DOH, NOAA, DEP, and USFWS (offshore refuges and freshwater lenses within jurisdictional boundaries). Negligent supervisory personnel from these agencies, and certain appointed or elected officials from FKAA and BOCC, have failed miserably in their duties as public servants and should be held accountable (if nothing else, names listed on Hall of Shame monument at mile marker 0).

    The laudable consensus-seeking Sanctuary Advisory Council sometimes seems to be more interested in closing off sandbars than tackling major solvable root causes of water quality degradation like shallow sewage injection wells or the ludicrous placement of a massive sewage treatment plant at a toxic landfill — a bit like worrying about a gnat in their meeting chambers when thousands of starving rabid dogs surround the building. Or blaming the janitor when shoddy construction causes a building to collapse.

  4. When I was at Arnaud and Naja’s home the other day and heard them talking with a third person about what would become this article, I asked which regulatory agency oversaw this, and was it local or state agency? I was told it actually is a state agency, although it’s called Monroe County Department of Health. I said, well, we already found out that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are useless, so is DOH any different?

    More than human sewerage from various keys killed the reef, but that had heavily contributed. Also contributing was cruise ships dumping their sewerage offstore. And development and dredging, which clouded the water and made it more difficult for sunlight to penetrate and algae corals feed on to reproduce via photosynthesis. And the chemical run off from the mainland and also from the various keys contributed.

    The local water is full of MRSA bacteria, google image MRSA to get a view of that terrorist.

    During last year’s Key West mayoral, incumbent Mayor Craig Cates categorically denied my statement that there is MRSA in the water; the ocean is clean and beautiful he said at a candidate forum.

    The actress was well advised to get out of the ocean. And that was a long time ago.

  5. Unfortunately, most people choose to ignore the entire topic of sewage and sewage disposal, perhaps as a vestige of Victorian era attitudes. However, without strict enforcement of existing regulations, we’re continuing to foul our own nests, and dilution is not the solution.

    Water quality is important… for today and for our future. Must we sue the DOH and DEP to get staffs to do their jobs to protect us?

  6. Outstanding article and informative comments.

    Competent individuals doing their job, certain that their performance will be evaluated, were the wheels of progress that maintained a standard of excellence that could be relied upon by the American taxpayer.

    It appears that we’ve arrived at a place that mandates a ‘new job description’ for all government enterprises: “whistleblower”.

    Kind of sad…

    Blessings & Respect

  7. History has shown that ALL previous civilizations failed because of internal corruption, greed, apathy. Well here we are and unless U’ve got your head in the sand(apathy) you should see the writing on the wall. It’s only a matter of time before America collapses because our government is only interested in getting MORE

  8. It seems to me that no legitimate study has been performed for a PERMANENT fix to the sewage issue. It seems to me that the only solution is to pump the sewage out of the keys. As long as the coral is dying the problem is not solved. Deep well, shallow well studies are simply BS to waste money and allows for more corruption which is quite obvious. Stop thinking about short term and think long term. If the Keys are going to survive the power must go to those with a brain who want to serve the masses and not themselves.

  9. Bozewell, not sure what pumping all the serwerage out of the Keys would entail and cost, and how long it would take to do build that “evacuation route”, and where would all of that sewerage be treated and where would the treated wastewater then be sent?

    Behond that, Keys human sewerage is only part of the cause of the reef dying and the sea around the Keys being polluted. You have cruise ships dumping sewerage, raw to somewhat treatted, off shore. You have massive petro-chemical runoff ifrom streets, yards, gardens, golf courses, parks, nto the the sea caused by rain in the Keys. You have massive petro chemical run off in south Florida toward the Bay of Florida, which run off then makes it way down to the Keys. You have seriously polluted canals throughout the Keys, polluted because they were dug too deep, were to long, too many bends, and not sufficient tide exchange to keep fresh sea water in them. You have defelopment and dredging, still, which puts silt into the water and makes it hard for the algae on which corals feed, to use photosynthesis to surivive and reproduce.

    It’s a great big mess; it may not now have a cure, even if all the human sewerage is piped to the mainland. The invasive species has done this. Maybe exterrminating the invasive species is the only chance for the reef to come back to life and for the sea to return to what it was before white people found the Florida Keys.

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