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Ormond Beach Observer Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019 2 years ago

Soiled: debate over north peninsula's septic tanks could lead to new study

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Ormond-by-the-Sea's high density and proximity to protected waterways are two major factors in deciding the tanks' effectiveness. But the dirty details are in the soil.
by: Jarleene Almenas Senior Editor

It's been less than a month since the city of Ormond Beach finalized the current budget, appropriating $1.1 million for the design and permitting of the first of 10 phases of a septic-to-sewer conversion in Ormond-by-the-Sea. 

A lot has happened in a short time — By late August, a citizen group called Ormond by the Sea Association had been organized, residents voiced loud and clear they didn't want to be annexed and the city passed a resolution vowing to amend its existing comprehensive plan to exclude the north pen from the city's annexation agreement requirement for connecting to utilities.

Opposition regarding the use of a 2013 report by the Florida Department of Health has been heard at both County Council and Ormond Beach City Commission meetings, with residents asking a study be completed to investigate if their septic tanks are really the cause of pollution in the Halifax River. A petition has been signed online by over 400 residents for a study, and City Commissioner Dwight Selby said to the Ormond Beach Observer that he will ask the City Commission to direct staff to explore pursuing a scientific study of the factors impacting water quality in the area. 

"Together we can achieve great things," he said. "Let’s make permanent changes that will improve water quality for generations to come."

A town hall "with a panel of subject experts" will be held before the end of December, the commissioner said. 

Why a study?

The 2013 report was strictly a recommendation by the health department, and was meant to be used for reference only regarding the long-term plans for sewer in the county, said Robert Maglievaz, environmental administrator for FDOH in Volusia County.

While he wasn't involved with the creation of the report (and those that were have retired or no longer work in the department), Maglievaz said the report was a way to develop a prioritization index for sewer. 

“There’s nothing in this report that should be used to say that a septic system can or can’t go [in an area] if you’re looking at a lot by lot level," Maglievaz said.

The issue with the north peninsula's septic tanks is its high density of homes, he said. Septic tanks were meant for rural areas where infrastructure cannot be provided in an economic way. 

Ormond-by-the-Sea's location between the Halifax River and the ocean — both of which are protected natural resources and are highly utilized by people for swimming, fishing and congregating — also plays a role in determining suitability for septic systems, said Dr. Jennifer Bell, Assistant chair of the Daytona State College School of Biological and Physical Sciences.

Those factors mean Ormond-by-the-Sea may not be the best area for septic. Bell is no stranger to how the tanks operate — she has one in her home in West DeLand. 

“Septic systems are designed to do what they do," Bell said. "They’re very good at what they do, so long as they’re maintained.”

The FDOH report doesn't take into account how well-maintained the systems in the north peninsula are. In fact, Maglievaz said there's no way for the health department to know this because tanks aren't inspected beyond repairs and new implementations.

Bell said it will be difficult to get homeowners on board with a conversion if their tanks are functioning properly. She believes that new subdivisions in that area should be tied to city sewer, but for the existing older homes, they shouldn't be forced to convert. However, residents should understand that at some point, they will eventually need a new septic tank, and that comes at a cost.

Testing on their own

Jeff Brower, who is running for Volusia County Council Chair in 2020, decided to conduct his own test of a few north peninsula septic tanks. Eight, to be exact. He decided to get involved after seeing the 2013 FDOH report, as he said he's been testing soils since 1979 as part of his job.

Using a soil probe, Brower located the lateral drain pipes and obtained a soil column five feet deep into the soil using a pipe. He only tested the soil in the bottom of the probe, sending them to Perry Agricultural Laboratory Inc., of Missouri, to analyze for pounds per acre of nitrogen and phosphorous.

His results showed lower numbers of nitrogen and phosphorous levels than he anticipated. He believes it's because septic tanks are doing their job and bacteria are consuming the nutrients before it reaches the groundwater.

Selby said that while he believes the 2013 FDOH study is enough to justify converting to city sewer, the residents do not. 

"I'm not an engineer, scientist or attorney," Selby said. "I'm a policy maker. So I would likely need an expert to explain [Brower's] work to me."

Brower said he hopes his study raises questions and triggers more testing to explore the cause of water pollution in the Halifax. 

DEP's action plans

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection conducted its own study in 2013  on the total maximum daily load for nutrients for the upper portion of the Halifax River. It estimated that there were 1,030 households on septic along the Halifax River watershed, and based on a 1999 estimate of 70 gallons of sewage a day per person, it hypothesized that about 19,845 pounds of nitrogen and 8,268 pounds of phosphorous went into the groundwater a year.

On-site sewage treatment and disposal systems in the Halifax River Watershed in 2012. Courtesy of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Their estimate of total households falls a bit short compared to the FDOH's numbers. Per its 2013 report, Maglievaz said there are an estimated 5,286 onsite wastewater treatment systems in Ormond-by-the-Sea. Only 2,274 of those have a record of a repair, upgrade or new system installed. However, Maglievaz said the FDOH database only goes back to 1999 and he believes repair permits have been required since 1991, so the permitted repair numbers could be higher. 

Based on the numbers the FDOH has, at least 43% of systems in the north peninsula have been repaired and inspected at least once since initially installed.

Part of the reason the 2013 FDOH report stated the north peninsula was unsuitable for septic was due to the permeability of the soil, identified as a Palm Beach/Paola Complex sand.

Florida DEP Deputy Press Secretary Weesam Khoury said in an email that, depending on how quickly water can move through the soil down to the aquifer and how close the aquifer is to the surface, septic systems can collectively "account for significant nutrient pollutant loading to impaired waters, including springs and surface waters."

"In general, nitrogen is more mobile in water passing through the soil and to the aquifer, while phosphorus tends to bind to the soil," Khoury said. "The more permeable the soil (i.e., the faster the water can move through it), the less time there is for natural processes to reduce the nitrogen and the larger impact on the groundwater resource."

DEP has put in place water quality restoration plans, known as Basin Management Action Plans, across the state. These BMAPs require new construction in high-density areas to have enhanced nutrient-reducing septic systems or connection to sewer in special focus areas, Khoury said. BMAPs have been put in place in the Gemini Springs, DeLeon Spring and Indian River Lagoon areas. 

Khoury said Gov. Ron DeSantis recently announced a proposed legislation to provide increased requirements in wastewater infrastructure, sanitary sewer overflows, biosolids, septic systems, agriculture and stormwater – "making all BMAPs and permitting programs stronger."

Maglievaz said if DEP decided to implement a BMAP in the Halifax River, that would mean residents would face expenses regardless of a sewer conversion. They would have to put in nitrogen-reducing tanks once their existing ones failed. A 2011 FDOH onsite nitrogen reduction strategies study quoted final construction costs for a Nitrex system at $23,600.

“There’s multiple ways to approach the issue of sewage treatment, sewage collection — septic tanks is one way, sewer is another way," Maglievaz said. "I think we need to look at all the pros and cons of both ways.”

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