OM Newsletter: Moving forward despite septic-tank discrimination

Article Posted on February 19, 2019

Dear Friends,

Did you notice? The state Department of Health issued a warning Jan. 28 to stay out of the St. Lucie River at Leighton Park, the Roosevelt Bridge and Sandsprit Park, as well as at the Stuart Sandbar, all due to high bacteria levels.

The elevated bacteria counts were likely the result of heavy rainfall earlier that week, which not only increases stormwater runoff but saturates the drain fields of septic tanks near the river. This is a recurring, well-documented problem in Martin County and a major challenge to our county officials to overcome.

If you did not notice or if you have only a fuzzy recollection of the announcement, that's understandable.

Since the pollution cannot be blamed on Lake Okeechobee discharges – non-existent this year – the daily barrage of headlines of multiple stories, often on the same day in the same paper, and the stepped-up frantic email blasts from environmental groups about water quality also were non-existent.

It's not that One Martin wants to promote a hysterical response to bacteria counts. Quite the contrary, we believe that sound science is the key to making effective governmental decisions and will eliminate unnecessary hysteria. 

We just could not help but notice how differently the news of enteric bacteria and cyanobacteria in our waterways is covered. The implication here is that one topic, cyanobacteria or blue-green algae, is politically correct to talk about, and the other is not.

Why is that? That's a good question, because both are hazardous to the environment and to human health.

Enteric bacteria inhabit the intestinal tract of humans and animals and their presence in recreational waters is an indication of fecal pollution that, at the very least, can lead to skin and eye infections, severe diarrhea and other conditions for those who come in contact with the water.

What is not talked about as often is that septic tank effluent can increase the risk of contact with human pathogens such as enteroviruses, as well as bacteria strains that have become immune to present-day antibiotics. Think about that for a moment. You're being exposed to bacteria that resists treatment!

Enteric bacteria is undetectable to the naked eye. Tests have shown that it's present even in Martin County's groundwater where septic tanks are used to handle human waste, not just in our surface waters.

The other threat to our water, blue-green algae, is a complex organism that sometimes contains toxins, but many times does not. Although we can see it when it blooms on the surface of our waters, it, too, is undetectable within the water column. We do not know if toxins are present without microscopic testing or until thick mats of dying algae form on stagnant water.

We have learned that we can safely vacuum up these mats and dispose of them at our sewage treatment plant, which is an important effort. Their toxins have been linked to neurological illnesses, such as ALS and Parkinson's disease, although scientists disagree as to whether there is a direct link or not.

Nonetheless, the airborne toxins are nasty stuff that cause nausea, eye and throat irritation and asthma attacks to levels that have driven residents into local hospital emergency rooms and sickened animals that have ingested the algae, even killing one dog.

The truth is that both enteric bacteria and blue-green algae should command the same level of public attention, because both indicate that our waters are imperiled, as is our public health, as a result of their presence.

Our pro-active county commission has finally begun to address seriously the need to remove septic tanks from the banks of our rivers, which also feed blue-green algae, yet we've known definitively for years how seriously septic tanks are polluting our waters. They also are encountering criticism, despite extensive studies validating the effort, including one study by CapTec engineering six years ago to update the county's 2001 septic tank elimination study.

That comprehensive study ranked the top 24 “hot spots” for water pollution in the county. Old Palm City ranked first and Golden Gate ranked second, followed closely by Beau Rivage, Gaines Avenue, Hibiscus Park, and Port Salerno.

It's noteworthy that Sewall's Point, which voted last year not to eliminate its septic tanks, was ranked 12th with greater pollutants in its waterways than Rio, which has made a concerted effort to switch to sewer lines, as has Port Salerno, Golden Gate and Old Palm City by dedicating their community redevelopment funds to septic tank elimination and stormwater treatment.

Removing septic tanks remains a low priority in the public eye, however, even in the face of a 2015 study of the DNA of enteric bacteria in the St. Lucie River by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and FAU's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute that identified the source as human.

The chair of the Martin County Commission in 2013, Commissioner Sarah Heard, had voted against the county's participation in the study, alleging that she “already knows that the source is agriculture” ... and Lake Okeechobee discharges. We now know it's not.

As long as the conversation does not include septic tank elimination as a priority, however, our hope for truly clean waterways will continue to go to tide – with or without blue-green algae.


Rick Hartman

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