Sen. Alexander defends septic tanks budget language

Sen. JD Alexander is defending proposed budget language that would prevent the Florida Department of Health from implementing “any nitrogen reduction strategies” for a year until a septic tanks study is completed.

The measure is aimed at preventing the DOH from implementing a proposed rule requiring advanced septic tanks to protect groundwater flowing from springs along the Wekiva River north of Orlando. The measure faces opposition from some counties in the region because of concerns about the cost of the septic tanks.

Scientists say springs across the state have become choked with weeds and algae because of high nitrogen levels in groundwater. SB 274, which would have regulated nitrogen releases from septic tanks and other sources, failed to get out of committee, and an attempt to attach it to a bill was voted down as some senators raised cost concerns.

“So in my view it is clearly the Senate’s intent we should go slow on the adoption of those new rules until we have more definitive information about exactly what the benefit level of the required spending on folks really means,” said Alexander, R-Lake Wales and the Senate’s budget chief.

Florida Department of Health spokeswoman Susan Smith said Wednesday in an e-mail that there are no other nitrogen reduction strategies that would be affected by the budget language.

DOH earlier this year launched a study of “passive” septic tank improvements. Former DOH official Mark Hooks said the passive measures could include techniques used now in treating drinking water.

The Legislature last year appropriated $900,000 toward a three-year study but less than $400,000 will be spent in this fiscal year, according to DOH. The budget language on Line 471 (SB 2600 conference report) provides for $540,000 from the Donations and Grants Trust Fund to be spent to complete the study by May 1, 2010.

There was no response from DOH officials to the question of whether the study could be completed within the required time-frame.

Environmental groups criticized similar rule delays proposed during the legislative session by Rep. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, as bill amendments. Audubon of Florida and 1000 Friends of Florida described the study requirement as a delay tactic by builders and their allies.

The Florida Department of Health says the advanced septic systems, which are required in Wakulla County, cost $3,000 to $10,000 more than standard septic tanks.

Hays, who withdrew the amendments, said better science is needed to justify the cost. Alexander voiced similar comments, quoting one high-end estimate for the standard systems at $15,000 compared to a conventional septic tank costing $2,000. However, DOH says the new systems cost from $3,000 to $10,000 more than standard systems depending on site characteristics.

“For a lot of us that represent rural Florida — to require us to spend $15,000 for a septic system that normally takes two (thousand dollars) when there is no documented evidence that it makes a meaningful difference in whatever nutrient leaching is occurring — seems a little punitive to many rural communities,” Alexander said.

Audubon’s Charles Lee said studies have pointed to septic tanks as a threat to springs along the Wekiva River. He said his group is considering asking Gov. Charlie Crist to use his line-item veto authority to strip the language from the budget, though Lee said the wording is better than the earlier House proposals.

“It’s still veto meat as far as we are concerned,” Lee said.

Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Please do not redistribute without permission.