Commissioners eye moratorium on septic tanks

Slowly, carefully, Keith Wessner’s crew with Harbor Septic LLC guided the 1,050-gallon, heavy-duty plastic septic tank into a pit they dug at a new home.

“This is a conventional tank,” Wessner said last week. “It’s essentially an empty tank with a baffle wall inside it.”

The wall will separate the solids from the liquids – once the homeowners move in and start flushing toilets, emptying sinks and running the washer – and let the liquids flow out into a 667-square-foot drain field on the lot, he said.

And it will last maybe 100 years and shouldn’t cause any problem to the environment, considering the Indian River Lagoon is several blocks away.

But the Brevard County Commission is concerned about thousands of older, concrete septic tanks much closer to the lagoon, leaching their liquids into the groundwater. And heavy rains push that waste water into the already polluted waterway.

The nitrogen and phosphorous in the wastewater nourish algae, which blooms and blocks sunlight from seagrass and suffocates fish and other underwater life.

As commissioners hunt projects to help clean the lagoon, some residents have pointed to the county Health Department continuing to issue permits for septic tanks.

And Commissioner Jim Barfield, of Merritt Island, took that concern a step further by suggesting a moratorium on new septic tanks until staff members could write new regulations to limit them.

Studies show leaching septic tanks added almost 19 percent of the lagoon’s nitrogen load. The largest source, existing muck on the lagoon bottom, contributed 42.5 percent.

The commission was expected Tuesday to consider a moratorium on first reading. It won’t become final, however, until second reading on May 22.

“We’ve got to take positive steps to prevent new septic tanks” in at least the most critical areas, within 50 meters of the lagoon, Barfield said April 24. “The best way is to pause now.”

But commissioners aren’t blocking all new septic tanks. Homeowners who don’t have sewer systems nearby can still opt for aerobic septic systems, a newer model of septic tank that gives the wastewater an initial treatment before letting it flow out.

County Attorney Eden Bentley, citing recent studies, said the enhanced types of septic tanks can remove 65 percent of the wastewater’s nitrogen before releasing it.

County Health Department figures show it currently permits about 2,400 aerobic treatment units. Similar figures for conventional septic tanks aren’t available, but experts say there could be up to 100,000 tanks in the county.

And unlike conventional tanks, aerobic tanks contain electric pumps and other features that must be maintained and inspected each year.

On April 24, commissioners agreed in a 4-1 vote on Barfield’s motion to advertise a moratorium on conventional septic tanks along the lagoon for five months, or until county staffers write new regulations. Commissioner John Tobia, whose district includes the South Beaches area, dissented.

Bentley said customers who have paid already for a new conventional septic tank will be grandfathered in under the moratorium.

Wessner said the moratorium, meanwhile, won’t hurt his business. Customers won’t be prevented from buying new tanks. They’ll just be limited to the more expensive ones.

He estimated a conventional tank costs between $6,000 and $8,000, while an aerobic unit can go for $10,000 to $12,000 in addition to the yearly maintenance costs of a few hundred dollars.

“They’re (county) steering business to me,” and to other aerobic-system installers, he said.

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