Septic Tanks to Sewer System: Monroe County 'Doing the Right Thing'

By: Nancy Smith | Posted: August 21, 2014 3:55 AM
I Beg to Differ

Key West, and now all of Monroe County, is teaching the rest of Florida what it's got to do to protect coastal water: Build sewage treatment plants, make every building in every town connect.

It's cost Monroe nearly $1 billion and more than a handful of friendships, but 15 painful years later the plumbing of the Keys is nearly a done deal.

Meanwhile, to the south and north of Lake Okeechobee, the Monroe County story has touched off a flurry of peevish emails between the former mayor of Pahokee James ("J.P.") Sasser -- big proponent of central sewer systems -- and the vice president of the Rivers Coalition Defense Fund, civil engineer Kevin Henderson -- big pooh-pooher of same.

First, about Key West:

In 1979 the environmentally sensitive waters off Key West, near the world's third-largest barrier coral reef, were so fouled with fecal material the state interceded, demanded the city of 25,000 clean up its act. So Key West built a treatment plant and hooked every home and business up.

According to a story in last Saturday's Miami Herald, for 20 years the rest of the island chain did nothing to copy Key West's success. Individual islands "continued to rely on septic tanks, cesspits and other onsite disposal systems, meaning that with every flush, more nutrient-rich human waste seeped through the porous limestone and into the fragile ecosystem of a national marine sanctuary."

Wrote reporter Cammy Clark, "The once-cobalt blue waters of this self-described paradise were becoming choked with algae." So in 1999 -- once again -- the state ordered the rest of Monroe County to convert to central sewers.

It hasn't been easy or cheap. Clark called the conversion process "an odyssey steeped in angry words, purported conspiracies, regulatory wrangling and lawsuits," even though Monroe citizens agreed from the start they wanted clean coastal water. Funding has come from the state, the federal stimulus and an increase in the local sales tax, which is mostly paid by tourists. Admittedly, it has been more complicated than it sounds. 

Pahokee's Sasser, a lifelong resident and four-term mayor of the 6,000-population city, points to Monroe County's experience as evidence that Martin County in particular needs to get cracking with its own conversion.

"All over the state of Florida, from Apalachicola Bay to the Green Swamp to the Florida Keys,  science is showing that septic tanks are detrimental to the health of the environment when located adjacent to water," Sasser wrote in an emailed letter to environmentalists in Martin County. The former mayor has spent more than a year trying to convince folks to the northeast of the Everglades Agricultural Area that poisoning the Indian River Lagoon is as much, if not more, about their own pollution as it is about agriculture's.

Replying to Sasser, engineer Henderson said, "It has come to my attention that some folks, particularly those who benefit from agriculture, believe septic tanks are the main problem for our estuaries. The science does not support this conclusion."

He added, "We spend millions of public dollars to research issues like this, and then a few folks ignore this huge data set and get emotional or self-serving or both."

But Sasser fired back that much of the "data set" driving Henderson's conclusions is more than 20 years old. "The  human population and number of septic tanks around the Indian River Lagoon has greatly increased over that time period ... Martin County's Chapter 10 Waste Water and Sewer component of their comp plan states several concerns over the years by the Martin County Health Department dealing with septic tanks damaging the water supply. Martin County officials chose to ignore those concerns," he wrote.

Sasser says he doesn't understand how Henderson or others in Martin County, particularly elected officials, can be so dismissive of septic tanks' role in pollution of the Indian River Lagoon (IRL).

"In just about every single Rivers Coalition meeting I have attended there was concern about current water samples and testing revealing huge amounts of fecal material in the IRL," he told Henderson and others in his next email. "The science and technology in this area has greatly improved in the last 20 years. There is even DNA testing being done on the fecal matter and what the results will show us will be an eye opener. If it is ever made public. ..."

UPDATE: As advertised in the local newspaper Aug. 7, the Martin County Local Planning Agency meets at 7 p.m. Thursday -- today -- at the County Administrative Center, in a hearing to amend the Sanitary Sewer Element of the Comprehensive Plan -- that's Chapter 10. Read all about it here.

Palm Beach County nurseryman Joel D. Farrell said he agrees with Sasser. "Water hasn't been discharged from Lake Okeechobee in months, but you can't swim in the St. Lucie or Indian rivers because of flesh-eating bacteria," he said. "What does that tell you? Nothing conclusive, but it certainly points to a problem outside of lake water and its effects."

I admit, I see it Sasser's way. I attended state Sen. Joe Negron's emotional Indian River Lagoon meeting last year in Stuart. I can't understand why Martin County commissioners haven't appointed a committee by now -- or directed staff -- to begin formulating and costing out a plan to get the whole county on central sewer. So much outrage over algae blooms -- all of it understandable in a paradise that defines itself in large part by its magnificent waterways.

Wasn't that filthy river water in jars I saw, making its way to Washington? Weren't those dozens, maybe hundreds of angry protesters sending a message to the governor over the loss of their quality of life? Of course it was. Situation real. Situation intolerable. 

The residents of Martin County are committed to clean waterways. But what about their elected officials? It's hard to believe that after last summer's lagoon disaster -- and the bad-water nightmare continuing as we speak  -- Martin County might actually need the state to come in and deliver them kicking and screaming from septic tanks.

After all residents have been through, could that be possible?

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. Twitter: @NancyLBSmith 

Comments (6)

Septic Helper
4:24AM AUG 25TH 2014
To avoid expensive repairs on your home and clean up the environment at the same time, use the natural cleaners for septic system clogging, plumbing and water supply maintenance like the all-natural Advanced Formula Septic-Helper 2000 and Enza Drain Line Cleaner.

In 2011 the EPA Total Maximum Load of Nitrates (TMDL) that states and counties must clean up their water supplies by 2017. It mandates new inspections on all septic systems, water wells and with funding, local waterways. A failed inspection would include a slow drain in your leach field, low septic tank bacteria levels or elevated Nitrate levels in your Water Well or local Water Supplies; could require replacement of your entire system for $10K to $100K+ or connect to the city sewer system for $5K to $50K. The new inspections are failing 12% of systems each year and 82% of those older than 1977.

Septic Line Warranty, Septic System Repairs and Failures Cost Homeowners Thousands Every Day. Protect Your Most Expensive Appliance and Avoid Out of Pocket Expenses with Our New Septic Line Warranty.
10:35AM AUG 21ST 2014
I agree with you except, to hook up those who are already being serviced by septic would incur the added costs I had mentioned.
Right now local governments are dropping impact fees and making it more convenient for developers to mess up all of OUR water supplies by not requiring proper sewerage hook-ups. And, Diane is correct with the industrial pollution, which includes farming/ranching, which has been ignored for at least a century. Curing the industrial pollution is a far greater task than tackling septic tanks and at least the government would have some practice by taking care of the septic pollution firsy, then going after the larger, and much more expensive industrial pollution. Unfortunately, most of that money would be absorbed by attorneys representing those polluters in court!
10:46AM AUG 21ST 2014
Industry and industrial water pollution, including farming and ranching are point source's that can be addressed by tough regulations with significant civil and criminal penalties for those who do not comply.
And again those best practices which mitigate or eleiminate the water pollution need to be a cost of doing business, not another instance where profits are privatized and the costs of fixing the damoage from the profits first mentality are socialized.
And nons of that is going to happen with Republican's in charge.
Exhibits of why, Governor Scott, the leadership and virtually all members of the Florida legislature that are Republican's most notably Senator Jimmy Patronis-panama City.
And the there is Congressman Steve Southerland also Panama City . Both want to destroy existing enviromental protections and make it impossible for any goverment at any level to be able to legislate enviromental protections.
10:19AM AUG 21ST 2014
Seems blaming water pollution on septic tanks is a good way to distract from a much worse cause of industrial pollution, be it farming or mills.

The problem will continue to destroy Florida's waterbodies until decision-makers understand the only answer is stop development on waterbodies.

Wastewater treatment facilities are not a panacea. First, the current tax payers and rate payers pay for construction to support new development. Major storms can knock out facilities/pipelines. Power shortages result in disruption of processing. Wastewater plants don't make waste totally disappear. Residuals containing pathogens or high concentrates of chemicals that kill natural resources must be disposed. Often dumped in landfills where it can seep into ground water. Check USGS.
8:24AM AUG 21ST 2014
Great article! I believe if government would pay for the entire process, people would be more apt to go along with the plan. However, costs per property, to convert from septic to sewer could range anywhere from $5k to well above $10k, and more! People just don't have that kind of money laying around to spend on crap. (litterally!) Some governments in Central Florida have gone so far to provide "low interest" payments in exchange for the swap with taxpayers still complaining that they would still be paying the thousands to swap, PLUS interest. Unless the national government steps in to provide the funding to complete the transfers I believe switching from septic to sewer will, unfortunately, take a much longer period of time, which many of us, along with our water supply, doesn't have enough of!
9:44AM AUG 21ST 2014
Mark, remakably nothing is "free."
That is one of the few genralities where a conservative trope is true.
And why development has never paid for itself in Florida. Anywhere.
The costs for sanitary sewr systems and stormwater treatment systems need to be a first cost of development not an added on cost paid for by everybody in the form of higher taxes to pay directly or indirectly to pay off bonds.
Another case of private enterprise most often privatizing their immense profits and socializing the mid and long term damage from the way those profits are made.
However the low interst loansd are the best interim solution absnt the political will to step up and pay the taxes to make thing right.
And Nancy Smith, my oh my. Government does have solutions?
And I think you forgot to mention Federal EPA pressure on the State of Florida nad Monroe County that moved things along.

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