Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Sen. Dean Offers Watered-Down Septic Tank bill

Sen. Charlie Dean, chairman of the Senate Environmental Protection and Conservation committee has staff working on a bill that would direct the Florida Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) to create a model ordinance for septic tank inspections that counties could choose to adopt.  This committee bill is a watered down version of part of last year’s big water bill, SB 550 by Sen. Constantine that will be discussed at the committee’s meeting next Wednesday, Feb. 9.

During the November special session devoted to overriding Gov. Crist’s vetoes, the legislature delayed the effective date of the septic tank inspection program until July 1, 2011 so they could take it up again before it became law.  The bill had passed 76-37 in the House and 34-4 in the Senate but legislators said it was too expensive. 

The Dept. of Health (DOH) estimates the cost of the inspection program to be $614 every five years or $122.40 per year.  Property owners on central sewer pay far more than that to ensure their wastes don’t adversely affect their neighbors or the environment.  It costs residents in the Phillippi Creek neighborhood of Sarasota County $86.01 each month in sewer related charges.

Sierra Club Florida believes property owners with septic tank systems shouldn’t be exempted from their obligation to prevent their wastes from fouling the community’s water supply.  Such an exemption merely
shifts the cost of protecting water quality onto central sewer subscribers, agriculture, and business.
Proposed changes in the bill include making the inspection program voluntary on the part of counties.  The original bill mandated inspections because the DOH estimates that 218,500 systems are failing (9.5% of the 2.3 -2.7 million on site treatment and disposal systems (OSTDs)).  Failing systems can introduce nitrogen, phosphorus, organic matter, and bacterial and viral pathogens into the surrounding area, wells, and groundwater.

The new version no longer requires upgrading construction guidelines for system drainfields.  The recommended distance from the bottom of a drainfield to the top of the wet season water table is 24 inches.  This allows aerobic bacteria to act on the effluent released in the drainfield and digest the nutrients.  Last session’s bill would have required all inspected systems installed before 1983 to meet a six inch requirement and twelve inches if they were repaired or modified.  OSTDs installed in 1983 or later would have had to meet a minimum of 12 inches and be brought up to 24 inches if repaired.

OSTDs use both anaerobic and aerobic bacteria to treat sewage effluent.  Anaerobic (without oxygen) bacteria digest material in the septic tank itself and aerobic bacteria digest effluent in the dry soil layer between the drainfield and the water table.  A properly maintained system can last thirty years. 

This year’s version also does away with a grant program for low-income property owners to help them with the cost of the inspection program.

During the January roll out of the new OSTD bill, Sens. Latvala, Jones, Detert, and Sobel suggested that the “model ordinance” be mandatory for counties with impaired waters or for those with first magnitude springs and/or that it be mandated for all counties, but that they be able to opt out after a public hearing.  Costs of inspection would be borne by property owners, not localities.

The only consideration of water quality in the proposed bill is that counties would be allowed to consider adopting more stringent inspection and repair ordinances than the “model ordinance” if they include all relevant scientific information, including input from the DOH and the DEP, and address septic tank use as a contributor to nutrient loading to a water body

The bill also allows counties or municipalities to apply to DEP for an exemption from the model ordinance for geographic areas they can show septic tanks will not contribute to new or continued nutrient loading.

Contact committee members to urge protection of Florida’s community’s waters
David Cullen, Sierra Club Florida lobbyist