Tallahassee, Fla. -- Florida environmentalists are worried about a bill that would relax the state's drinking-water standards to allow utilities to pump slightly polluted water underground into Florida's aquifer.
"We're taking water that was otherwise pristine, not contaminated, and we're putting this other contaminated water into it," said Suzi Ruhl, a lawyer with the Florida Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation. "This is the first time a state Legislature has even entered into that territory."
"We believe," added Sierra Club lobbyist Susie Caplowe, "that this is opening a Pandora's box."
Despite these fears, the Senate Natural Resources Committee recently passed the bill unanimously.
An identical measure is pending in the House. Both bills will go through several more committee stops before going to the full Legislature for a vote.
The proposal is being pushed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, that says the more relaxed standards will help cut costs when the state embarks on a massive overhaul of the Everglades. Part of the plan calls for punching more than 300 holes in the limestone near Lake Okeechobee. During the rainy season, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would inject more than 1-billion gallons of fresh water a day into the wells. The fresh water would sit 1,000 feet underground in a bubble in the brackish Floridan Aquifer, where about 30 percent of it would dribble away. During dry weather, what remained could be pumped back to the surface to feed the Everglades and thirsty cities.
The water that the state wants to pump underground (water that comes from polluted Lake Okeechobee, and the surrounding sugar, dairy and vegetable farms) would not pass drinking water standards without expensive treatment. Therefore, the state wants to relax the rules, and allow the water to exceed standards for bacteria and coliform.
The theory is that the bacteria will not survive underground. Anyone applying for permission to build a deep well would have to first prove that the bacteria would die off. Supporters of the bill say the water will be treated anyway to drinking water standards when it is pumped back up.
Environmentalists point out that Florida's other experiments with injecting into the aquifer have had problems. In St. Petersburg, partly treated sewage that was pumped underground migrated upward, contaminating private drinking-water wells.
"Those wells were put in a long time ago," said Mimi Drew, who heads the DEP division that oversees water and sewer plants. "We've not had this problem in the facilities we permitted later. This isn't the beast it's being made out to be."