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Bill delay septic waste ban passes House with calls for study, springs protection

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A bill that delays a ban on the disposal of septic tank waste on farm fields across the state passed the House in anticipation of a state study of the waste disposal practice.

Florida has 2.6 million septic tanks scattered across the state that annually produce 100 million gallons of waste, called septage, when they are pumped out. About 40 percent is spread at 88 land application sites across the state, according to the Florida Department of Health.

In 2010, the Legislature voted to ban the land spreading of waste beginning in 2016 as part of a bill that supporters said would protect springs and waterways from nutrient pollution.

But septic tank waste haulers now say the ban could cause the price of septic tank pump-outs to skyrocket. They support a Department of Environmental Protection study, which already is underway.

“Let’s go back and let’s do the study,” said state Rep. Katie Edwards, a Democrat from Plantation. “And let’s figure out a way to either have a much more permanent land application of septage process in place or let’s have a hard-and-fast ban that actually makes sense.”

Septic tank waste haulers say the practice is highly regulated by the Florida Department of Health. But environmentalists say DOH regulates for human safety and not effects on the environment from waste seeping into groundwater that flows to springs.

HB 687, as filed by Republican state Rep. Brad Drake of Eucheeanna, would have repealed the ban set for Jan. 1, 2016. But the bill faced opposition from environmental groups including Sierra Club Florida.

The Department of Environmental Protection so far has identified 18 potential testing sites and 13 landowners have agreed to participate. Four monitoring wells on each site will be sampled over 18 months with well drilling scheduled to start next Monday.

The bill improved when the ban was delayed rather than repealed, said David Cullen, Sierra Club Florida lobbyist. But he said the group still opposes the bill because it allows the practice particularly in areas where springs can be affected.

On the House floor Thursday, state Rep. Mark Pafford, the House Democratic leader from West Palm Beach, said the bill could be worse — but the waste is bad, too.

“It’s sewage basically pumped out of septic tanks that is basically sprayed and put onto land in an open process,” he said.

But Edwards said there was no solution in place when the ban was passed in 2010 — and then forgotten about. She said she tried to pass a bill last year but it didn’t reach the House floor because of opposition in the Senate.

“I hope next session we are able to come back and implement the findings of the study,” she said. But it seems unlikely the study will be completed in time for the 2016 legislative session.

State Rep. Kristin Jacobs, a Democrat from Coconut Creek, said a solution she discussed with Drake is connecting more urban communities on septic tanks, especially those affecting springs, to central sewer systems.

There are “more springs in the state of Florida than anywhere else on the planet,” Jacobs said. “They are precious and deserve our protection.”

HB 687 passed 99-12 with only some Democrats voting in opposition. The Senate version of the bill, SB 648, has two more committee stops.

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee. 

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