Pleas for action amid debate on septic tanks

Former Brevard County Commissioner Helen Voltz last week told her successors how her son, an avid fisherman, has to go out into the Atlantic Ocean to catch anything edible.

“You can’t eat the fish from the Indian River Lagoon,” she told the current County Commission on May 22.

Voltz, a Republican of West Melbourne, represented the district that includes the South Beaches from 2004 to 2008, when she was defeated in a run for the county Property Appraiser’s Office.

She spoke as commissioners heard the second and final reading of a 150-day moratorium on new conventional septic tanks on the county’s barrier island, Merritt Island and within 50 meters of the lagoon, and the creeks and canals that feed it.

Something needs to be done, Voltz agreed, such as more aggressively changing septic tanks out for sewer extensions. But the moratorium, she said, would be too little, too late.

“One hundred fifty days to do what?” she asked. “New (aerobic) septic tanks won’t go in yet. New sewers won’t go in. It’s another study to do something else down the road. That study should have been done long before now. … But it wasn’t.”

Despite Voltz’s objections, commissioners voted 3-2 for the moratorium.

During the moratorium, new customers will be prevented from contracting for conventional septic tanks, basically empty tanks with baffled walls inside, which run about $7,000 each. Those customers who have already contracted for them, however, will be grandfathered in.

During the moratorium, customers will be limited to choosing among various aerobic treatment units at about $11,000 each plus annual maintenance costs. An aerobic treatment unit removes about 65 percent of the nitrogen from its wastewater before releasing it into groundwater, which then gets pushed by rains into the ailing lagoon, county Natural Resources Director Virginia Barker explained.

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

The nitrogen and phosphorous from the waste water fuel algae in the lagoon. And the algae blooms and blocks sunlight from seagrass, and suffocates fish and other underwater life.

Barker said her staff will spend the moratorium time drafting regulations on septic tanks to permanently cut new nitrogen from the lagoon.

“I am so glad you’re finally looking carefully at this septic issue and you’re willing to bring regulation,” Satellite Beach resident Gail Meredith told commissioners.

Malabar resident Dan White said he hoped commissioners would subsidize the costs of the more expensive aerobic systems lower-income residents for lower-income residents since they are the only systems that would be approved.

Commissioner Jim Barfield, of Merritt Island, who last month proposed the moratorium, got a 3-2 vote on his motion last week. “The point is this: If we keep putting off and putting off, we’ve been doing that for 40 years,” he said in the first hearing May 8, repeating much of the same in the final hearing.

“Why do we want to keep putting it off?” he added. “The point is we might as well do it now, go ahead with the moratorium, get the research, get all our ducks in a row, and then we’ll come back to this commission and we’ll come up with a path forward. But the time is now.”

Chairwoman Rita Pritchett and Commissioner Curt Smith joined Barfield, as they did May 8, while Vice Chairwoman Kristine Isnardi and Commissioner John Tobia again dissented.

Tobia grilled Barker on whether any study has shown how much nitrogen would be removed by soils from effluent released by a septic tank beyond 200 meters from the lagoon.

Barker said she wasn’t aware of such a study in existence, but said she planned to have a new study – during the moratorium – to divide distances from the lagoon into slivers out to 500 meters so nitrogen loads from those distances could be calculated.

Isnardi, meanwhile, repeated her sentiment from the May 8 hearing. She said she couldn’t agree to a moratorium on septic tanks while ignoring the bigger need for better sewer systems.

If her colleagues were to insist on new septic tank abilities, she said, future commissions could lose focus on improving the sewer systems. She recalled when Hurricane Irma overwhelmed the barrier island’s sewer system last fall, prompting utilities officials to dump some 20 million gallons of nitrogen-laden effluent into the lagoon.

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