Deregulated “Fertilizer” Contains Same Nitrogen & Phosphorus as Regulated “Sludge”
by TCPalm’s Lucas Daprile
ABOUT THIS INVESTIGATION
TCPalm examined maps, databases and wastewater treatment plant shipping records to determine where human waste is being dumped. Our exclusive analysis is the first of its kind since the state stopped collecting this data in 2010, three years after the Legislature deregulated Class AA biosolids as “fertilizer.”
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 prompted complaints.
“By the time you got to it, you had to drive off,” said Diane Lee Pendleton, a Palm Beach property appraiser agriculture manager who 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 the waste-dumping is 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.
Like nearly all farms in the muck-rich EAA, Griffin’s soil already had plenty of phosphorus, tests show. Even if his soil were depleted, the amount of waste he used in 2015 alone would have lasted him at least 20 years, according to TCPalm’s calculations based on the state’s recommended pounds of phosphorus per acre per year for sod.
During heavy rains, excess 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, bonefish, sea trout and other marine life.
Griffin, who declined to comment, illustrates an extreme example of a common practice, a TCPalm investigation found. Two-thirds of the state’s waste is spread on private land. Half of that requires permits and is banned in certain watersheds because, being less treated, it contains more pathogens and heavy metals.
The other half is not. Classified as “fertilizer,” limitless amounts of it can be dumped near waterways — despite containing just as much nitrogen and phosphorus as the sewage sludge.
It’s the source of nearly a fourth of the phosphorus in the Lake Okeechobee watershed, according to a 2009 Audubon Florida report that called human waste-dumping “the most preventable source of pollution.”
WRONG PLACE, WRONG AMOUNT
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 more resembles dumping 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.”
Ocala, Wellington, Lee County and St. Petersburg are among the governments that sell their waste to farmers or fertilizer companies. St. Pete made $531,347 in 2015 selling 60 million pounds to Biosolids Distribution Service, which applied some on the Clear Springs Ranch near Bartow.
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.”
Mike Adams, whose 40,000-acre Adams Ranch straddles St. Lucie, Madison, Osceola and Okeechobee, said he doesn’t use it because it smells bad and is hard to manage.
“If it was a much more uniform product and (we) felt it was a little cleaner, a little more consistent,” Adams said, “we might reconsider.”
LAWMAKERS CREATE LOOPHOLE
Lawmakers tried to ban waste dumping in the St. Lucie, Caloosahatchee and Lake Okeechobee watersheds when they unanimously passed the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program in 2007.
But a committee rewrite of the bill exempted the waste that contains less bacteria and heavy metals, without regard to its nitrogen and phosphorus content.
While that Class AA “fertilizer” now falls under Department of Agriculture voluntary guidelines about how best to use it, Class B “sludge” requires a Department of Environmental Protection permit that regulates the amount, proximity to surface water, time the public must avoid the site after application — and bans it in those three 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 for curbing the use of Class B waste throughout the state and banning it in key watersheds, and said policies sufficiently address Class AA waste without weakening regulations.
Lawmakers who deregulated Class AA waste expressed surprise when TCPalm 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 Sen. 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.”
Former Sen. Burt Saunders of Collier County introduced the amendment.
“I have no idea where that [information] came from, what it means or whether it’s been a problem,” Saunders said of TCPalm’s investigative findings. “I’m not gonna go back and read all the material just to answer a question.”
Senate President Joe Negron, who was not in office then, declined an interview, but issued a statement saying he was “concerned” and supports “further review by the appropriate committees.” The Stuart Republican represents ground zero for Lake Okeechobee discharges that spur toxic algae blooms in the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon.
When TCPalm presented its findings to Gov. Rick Scott’s office and asked whether he’d seek a change, spokeswoman Lauren Schenone referred questions to DEP, and wrote in an email that Scott “takes the safety of our water seriously.”
‘FIX THE STATUTE’
It undermines the accuracy of the state’s water pollution cleanup plan, whose success relies on the ability to identify, measure and monitor pollutants 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 the agricultural industry, 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.
The state should monitor, track and regulate all waste and dispose of it differently, say environmentalists such as Charles Lee, Audubon Florida’s director of advocacy. Only a third of Florida’s waste ends up in landfills and biofuel plants, which are more environmentally friendly but more expensive alternatives.
DEP and the Legislature have the power to overturn the amendment, but Dockery said she isn’t holding her breath.
“This current DEP, under this current administration, has not been pro-environment, and I would not trust DEP at this time to be the ones to fix it,” Dockery said. “The best fix is to change the statute.” [READ MORE]