August 26, 2016
DEP unimpressed with Ecosphere’s toxic algae cleanup at Outboards Only | Digital extras
By Tyler Treadway of TCPalm
State data show a St. Lucie River marina choked with thick mats of toxic blue-green algae was toxin-free after a week of treatment by Ecosphere Technologies.
Yet the Stuart company's algae removal method was "not viewed favorably" by a Florida Department of Environmental Protection panel that assessed dozens of businesses' proposals.
That's because DEP and Ecosphere used different test results to rate the company's work at Outboards Only in the Rio community.
Treasure Coast Newspapers obtained all the testing data from DEP and a Martin County contractor showing the effects of Ecosphere's work at the boat repair shop and marina on the river's north shore from July 9-15.
Ecosphere touts DEP test results that showed zero microcystin in water samples the state agency took July 18 and July 21, after the work was done.
"Our own data is finding the same thing: non-detectable levels of microcystin after we were finished," said Corey McGuire, Ecosphere marketing director.
DEP, however, focused on a July 11 water sample that showed Ecosphere's cleaning unit removed only about half the microcystin from the water pumped through it.
"The performance results from the demonstration project did not show reduction of toxin levels below" the hazardous level, DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller wrote in an email to Treasure Coast Newspapers.
DEP was right to consider the earlier conditions, according to a University of Florida algae expert.
The water in/water out test "is a better measure of how the Ecosphere process performs," said Ed Phlips, a professor at the UF Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants. Other factors could have helped clear algae out of the boat basin over the course of a week, including flushing by incoming and outgoing tides and bacteria in the water that eat microcystin.
"I'm not saying (Ecosphere's work) didn't have a positive effect, but maybe it simply accelerated a natural process," Phlips said.
Natural processes cleared a thick algae bloom out of Central Marine, a marina slightly upstream from Outboards Only, said manager Mary Radabaugh.
"Probably 80 percent of the algae rotted and sank to the bottom. The other 20 percent was washed out by high, full-moon tides," Radabaugh said. "No one came here and cleaned out our marina," with the exception of Marine Vacuum Services' brief algae-removal demonstration July 14.
McGuire, who disputes DEP's logic, said Ecosphere:
At Outboards Only, the change in the football field-sized boat basin was obvious: The thick mats of algae and the noxious odor present July 9 when Ecosphere started its work were gone by the evening of July 15, when several of its employeeEcosphere did the cleanup for free to sell its proposal to place several cleaning units along the C-44 Canal from Port Mayaca, where algae-carrying water is released from Lake Okeechobee, to the St. Lucie Lock and Dam, where lake water enters the St. Lucie River.
"We could deploy one, two, five or more of our units — as many as are needed," McGuire said.
They'll need a lot more than that, Phlips said. Lake Okeechobee water is currently flowing along the canal at an average rate of 420 million gallons a day. In June, when algae was blooming throughout the St. Lucie River estuary, the flow topped 1 billion gallons a day.
The pass-through test indicates the units, which can move up to 4,000 gallons a minute, would have trouble keeping up with the canal flow, Phlips said.
Another demonstration by Ecosphere, this time along the C-44 Canal, would be needed, Phlips said, "if the state or a local agency was going to spend what I expect would be a lot of money on a proposed project."
McGuire has declined to say how much the firm spent at Outboards Only or how much it would charge to remove algae from river-bound lake water.
"That's something to be worked out one-on-one with the state or the federal government, whoever is going to pay for it," he said. "Everyone agrees that the ultimate solution to stopping the discharges is many, many years away; and we're available to start providing a short-term solution to this problem."