Monday, November 30, 2015

Florida's Success Story: Shifting the costs of waste disposal to future generations ... by gimleteye

Back in the good old days -- the late 1990's when Jeb Bush was a fresh-faced and ambitious young governor -- I lead a Florida Sierra Club effort to hold the line on using underground aquifers as repositories for waste disposal on a massive scale. Provisions within the Safe Drinking Water Act, a landmark federal regulation, prohibited the "migration" of fluids injected underground from leaking between geologic layers. The idea at the time was that underground supplies of drinking water should not be put at risk by engineered solutions to waste disposal. The EPA, under the guise of an exemption, had allowed Florida to proceed to regulate wastewater disposal wells despite information they were leaking.

This isn't a sexy issue for people who could care less where their piss and shit go once they flush the toilet. Still, most people would agree that as a general rule, crapping in your water supply is a really, really bad idea.

The Sierra Club group in Miami had done a little research and, using the county's own statistics, discovered that wells used to dispose of scarcely treated municipal wastewater generating tens of millions of gallons per day by Miami's residents, businesses, and visitors, was indeed leaking from the deep underground layers where it was supposed to be confined by law. Known by the bland, anodyne term "Underground Injection Control", these wells were violating federal law and Sierra Club -- dab summit! -- decided to sue.

The Bush EPA had a different idea. They decided to eliminate the restrictive provision in the Safe Drinking Water Act, and in doing so not only legalized the clear failure of "control" to protect drinking water but also paved the way for the explosion of wealth creation through fracking for natural gas in the rest of the nation. It is a little known footnote to the 2000's that the inconvenient "migration" of Miami-Dade sewage injected underground through deep wells helped Halliburton, Cheney et al. make billions in natural gas exploration, production and transmission, and in doing so, put drinking water supplies at significant risk.

Sierra Club tried -- I spent well over a year on this project -- to assess the scope and scale of underground injection control in Florida. We discovered two phenomena: first, that there were so many municipal wells dug into the porous geology of the state as to render a drawing in which Florida looked like a very large piece of Swiss cheese and, second, that the Jeb Bush administration in Tallahassee treated this point of intersection between well drilling and underground geology like a state secret. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, delegated by the EPA to administer all wastewater rules and enforcement, was closed tighter than the Kremlin. It was not just that the Bush people despised Sierra Club. They were on a mission: to make the growth of housing and construction easier, faster, no matter what the costs to the future.

A key to campaign contributions that fueled the Bush juggernaut was cheap disposal of wastewater throughout the state, through wells drilled into so-called "boulder zones". In this case and so many other environmental crimes in Florida, the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm, did not and would not ever apply. In 2012 Scientific America published the following, "In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted," said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA's underground injection program in Washington. "A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die."

It should NOT have to turn out this way. Our laws intend to protect lives and public health from risk of pollution at it source and pollution that is widely dispersed. The premise being tested in Paris, today, is whether nations will steer the planet's climate away from 2 degrees warming by man-made carbon dioxide. The threat is in the air, but we should also be concerned about what is happening in the aquifer, right under our feet.

(also read our recent story Deepest Injection Well in the Country at Virginia Key)


cyndi said...

when will this end? how can we stop assault from all sides?

Anonymous said...

So how did the Sierra Club lawsuit end, if it has been decided?