May 20, 2017
Treated waste fertilizes crops, but can fuel algae blooms
By Amy Bennett Williams and Lucas Daprile
Where their toilet flush ends up may not be top-of-mind for most Southwest Floridians, but that stuff has to go somewhere, and its final destination is alarming environmental advocates.
They want to change a 9-year-old provision that lets some of it wash into the region’s fragile watersheds, including the Caloosahatchee’s and Lake Okeechobee’s, fueling potentially toxic algae blooms.
“Every nutrient that’s dumped on the land, whether it’s a yard fertilizer or sewage sludge … is contributing to those algal blooms,” said Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon Florida. And while some of those nutrients can be hard to restrict, the nonprofit calls human waste dumping the most preventable source of pollution.
Florida domestic waste treatment plants annually produce some 320,000 tons of biosolids, also called sludge, the state’s department of Environmental Protection estimates. That’s the dried-out stuff from which wastewater has been removed, then treated or reused.
Of that, only a third of it ends up in landfills or biofuel plants. Instead of those environmentally friendly but more expensive destinations, the remaining two-thirds is spread on land, a USA TODAY Network - Florida investigation found.
Class B biosolids are minimally treated and banned in certain watersheds, including the Caloosahatchee's and Lake Okeechobee's.
Class B contains pathogens and heavy metals, so it's strictly regulated, says the DEP’s Jess Boyd. “The land-application sites must obtain DEP permits, have site-specific nutrient management plan and follow site restrictions to protect public water sources.”
There is only one permitted Class B dump site in Lee County and that's Corkscrew Ranch in Estero. Collier has two: one at the Ranch One Grove in Immokalee and the other at BCI south of Ave Maria.
But Boyd thinks it’s likely only the Immokalee site is active, because the other two weren’t used at all in 2015, the last year for which records were available. Calls to both sites weren't immediately returned.
Class AA biosolids are more highly treated but nearly unregulated, something environmentalists would like to change.
Because the sludge is cleansed of things like lead, arsenic and pathogens, it’s considered a fertilizer and not tracked by the state. The only way to figure out where Class AA biosolids go is to do what the state doesn’t: compile and check map treatment plants’ shipping records, which is what the USA TODAY Network did for this investigation. Even that’s not entirely precise, because there’s no way to know where a buyer ultimately applies the stuff.
Lee County, for example, mixes treated sludge with shredded yard waste to make its trademarked OrganicLee fertilizer, which it then sells in bulk to farmers (85 percent of its customers) or for $2.75 a bag to consumers. Last year’s profit: more than $370,000.
The nutrients in OrganicLee aren't highly concentrated and are released slowly into the soil, making it one of the few fertilizers Lee County's fertilizer ordinance allows during the rainy season. The rule is designed to curb water pollution by limiting the amount of nutrients washing into the region's water bodies. Since 2010, the county has transformed 446,831 tons of yard waste and biosolids into 130,932 tons of OrganicLee.
Collier County spends some $1.7 million annually to haul its biosolids to a landfill near Okeechobee, one of the disposal options environmentalists favor, but is searching for a "turn-key solution to manage biosolids and other organic wastes at a processing facility that could include energy recovery and beneficial use of the product," the county's pollution control manager Danette Kinaszczuk wrote in an email.
Other Florida municipalities give the stuff away or sell it at very low prices, which makes it an attractive product for some ranchers, grove owners and sod farmers, who can spread it anywhere they like, including in sensitive watersheds.
Deregulated or not, Class AA biosolids still contain as much algae-causing nitrogen and phosphorus as Class B. And that’s what concerns Audubon.
During heavy rains, those nutrients run into nearby watersheds, where they can feed potentially toxic algae blooms. The oxygen- and sunlight-choking pollution can kill fish, mussels and sea grass beds that are food for manatees and a safe haven for juvenile snook, sea trout and other marine life.
How it happened
In 2007, as the Florida Legislature was crafting the Northern Everglades plan, a committee rewrite of the bill exempted Class AA biosolids, leaving them to fall under Department of Agriculture's voluntary guidelines about their use, while curbing the use of Class B waste throughout the state and banning it in key watersheds.
That’s like “putting lipstick on a pig,” former DEP administrator Gary Roderick said of the distinction.
DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller applauded the law and said policies sufficiently address Class AA waste without weakening regulations.
Lawmakers who deregulated Class AA waste expressed surprise when the USA TODAY Network provided examples of unfettered waste-dumping in sensitive watersheds.
“That shouldn’t be happening,” said former Sen. Paula Dockery of Lakeland.
Sen. Dennis Jones of Pinellas County and former senator Nan Rich of Broward County defended their votes, but both said they had not intended to create the loophole. “Unfortunately,” Rich said, “there are unintended consequences of many bills.”
It was former Sen. Burt Saunders of Collier County who introduced the amendment, and while he says after almost 10 years he can't remember all the particulars, he is sure it wasn't because anyone was twisting his arm.
"My guess — and it’s just a guess — is the ag community or municipalities requested it be worded that way with the idea of improving the overall health (of the Everglades)," he said. At the time, no one raised any red flags, he said. "If the environmental community had come back and said, 'Hey, this is a problem,' this could have been easily fixed then."
He questions why lawmakers haven't addressed it since then.
"If there's a problem with this, the Legislature has had nine years to fix it," Saunders said. "The DEP, the water management district, any of those state agencies could have come back to the Legislature and said, 'We need to change this,' they could peel out that approval. It would be a simple, very easy process."
Yet the 2017 legislative session ended with no changes to the way Class AA biosolids are handled.
The lack of regulation and oversight has a ripple effect on environmental preservation.
It undermines the accuracy of the state’s water pollution cleanup plan, whose success relies on the ability to identify, measure and monitor sources of contaminants such as nitrogen and phosphorus. Without knowing where waste is dumped, the state cannot identify hot spots of overuse, said Del Bottcher, president of environmental consulting firm Soil and Water Engineering Technology, which has produced reports for DEP and the state’s water districts.
It also highlights a weakness in “best management practices,” the state’s voluntary guidelines for farmers, such as not using too much fertilizer during the rainy season. Some researchers say best management practices have reduced pollution, but not all farmers have signed up for the honor system program. When the state sampled participating farms from 2013 to 2015, it found 20 percent to 55 percent needed to improve their irrigation or nutrient management.
But Gene McAvoy, who directs Hendry County's Extension Service, said it makes little sense for farmers to use biosolids to excess.
"Too much nitrogen, and the crop is much more attractive to insects and diseases," he said. "I’m sure occasionally it happens, but most growers I know want to do the right thing."
Plus, he said, the "ick" factor is something those who grow food crops consider.
"A reason vegetable growers don’t use it at all is that buyers don’t want any association with human manure because it turns off the consumer," he said. "It’s the unwritten law."
Dumping or fertilizing?
Farmers have long fertilized their crops with manure and even treated human waste, and some science and industry officials say there’s no problem if it’s done correctly. The concern is the sheer amount being used these days, which can resemble dumping more than fertilizing.
“If you ... use it properly, you don’t cause a pollution problem,” said Paul Gray, an Audubon Florida scientist. “It’s being done on an industrial scale and that industrial scale really adds up and harms our waterways.”
The main reason is the comparatively high cost of chemical fertilizer, which can exceed $500 per ton. Florida’s growing communities, which need to dispose of ever-increasing amounts of waste, typically charge between $5 and $50, depending on the quality of the product — if they charge at all.
Audubon’s 2009 report says nearly a fourth of all phosphorus in the Lake Okeechobee watershed comes from biosolids.
“The big cities have a huge need to dump a huge amount of biosolids, more than any farmer would ever be dumping on his field for fertilizer,” said Maggy Hurchalla, an environmental activist and former Martin County commissioner.
Brevard County cattle rancher Carlos Springfield agreed. “It’s more for them to get rid of that sludge,” said Springfield, who in 2015 let Titusville dump 50 tons of waste on his farm — a half-mile from the Indian River Lagoon.
The waste lasts longer and doesn’t wash away as easily as chemical fertilizer, said Chad Meadows of Biosolids Distribution Service, who acknowledged not all farmers share his view. “If you ask 10 ranchers, you’re gonna get 10 different answers.”
But some farmers appear to love the stuff.
Dan Griffin dumped so much treated human waste on his sod farm in 2015 that Palm Beach County inspectors said it was like walking on raw sewage.
The 317-acre farm was covered in a layer 2 feet deep with mountains piled 12 feet high and wet pools turning blue and green — but no commercial sod in sight.
Griffin liked the free “fertilizer” and Hollywood Public Utilities liked the cheaper, easier way of disposing of 10,665 tons of waste, but the smell posed a problem.
“By the time you got to it, you had to drive off,” said Diane Lee Pendleton, an agriculture manager with the county property appraiser’s office, who in response to complaints inspected the farm three times in 2014 and 2015. “You weren’t able to continue to stay there and smell it. You had to get away. It was that strong.”
Though his waste-dumping was legal by state standards, it took the county’s threat to revoke Griffin’s agricultural property tax exemption and an out-of-court settlement for him to agree to curb how much waste he spreads on his farm in the Everglades Agricultural Area, south of Lake Okeechobee.
Anomalous as Griffin may be, the very fact that he was able to make a 300-acre sludge slick illustrates the system's brokenness, Gray said. But the first step toward changing that is making those in power aware of the problem's scope.
He points to this year's draft basin management action plan for Lake Okeechobee, essentially the pollution clean-up road map that's supposed to guide treatment of the watershed.
"It has almost no mention of solid waste, Class B, AA, biosolids, source control or similar topics," Gray said.
"They just are not paying attention to it."
Biosolids in Lee and Collier counties
How many sewage treatment facilities?
Lee: Six: in Three Oaks, on Pine Island, at Fiesta Village, in Gateway, on Fort Myers Beach and at High Point; plus a compost facility at the Lee/Hendry landfill in Hendry County
Collier: Two: one near the intersection of Immokalee Road and Goodlette Frank Road; the other facility is located in the southern part of the county near the intersection of St. Andrews Boulevard and Warren Street.,
How much is processed annually?
Lee: Approximately 11,200 dry tons
Collier: Approximately 25,000 dewatered tons, which are not as highly processed and heavier
Who watches over the process?
Biosolids in both counties are treated in accordance with federal EPA and state DEP regulations Lee County’s compost facility does not accept any septic or portable toilet business’ materials.
How do biosolids differ
Class B biosolids are minimally treated and banned in certain watersheds. They contain pathogens and heavy metals, so it's strictly regulated. The land-application sites must obtain DEP permits, have site-specific nutrient management plans.
Class AA biosolids are more highly treated than Class B ones and considered fertilizer. The state does not track where the sludge is used.