With scientists increasingly alarmed that bio-sludge is polluting Blue Cypress Lake while the Florida Department of Environmental Protection sits on its hands, Indian River County is crafting an ordinance to ban its use in farming.
Several environmental groups and state agencies believe bio-sludge – treated human waste loaded with nitrogen and other chemicals – that’s being spread on fields in Indian River County is feeding toxic algae blooms in Blue Cypress Lake, a water body remote from urban areas that has been environmentally pristine until very recently.
Dr. Eddie Widder of the Ocean Research and Conservation Association, Dr. Richard Baker, head of Pelican Island Audubon Society, and St. Johns River Water Management District believe the human waste, which other counties are legally dumping here, is contributing to algae blooms in the lake.
But the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which issues permits that allow bio-sludge to be spread on agricultural land as fertilizer, maintains the sludge is not harming the lake.
“As I am sure you know, the sources of excess nutrients in a waterbody can include many sources, such as water treatment plant discharges, stormwater runoff, septic tanks, and fertilizer runoff from both urban and agricultural lands,” said FDEP spokesperson Dee Ann Miller.
The lake is part of the headwaters of the St. Johns River water basin, and St. Johns River Keeper Lisa Rinaman raised the alarm about sludge in April, asking the FDEP for an immediate moratorium on sludge application.
Her call for a halt to human waste application came in the wake of a St. Johns River Water Management study released in February that found the sludge likely is polluting the lake.
“Knowing this, the FDEP reapproved a 10-year sludge application permit a month later to the Pressley Ranch,” Rinaman said.
“They’re allowing Blue Cypress Lake to die on their watch.”
Seeking to clarify the situation, Indian River County wants to perform scientific tests to determine the source of pollution in the lake, but the FDEP has failed to provide testing guidelines.
At the June 19 county commission meeting, Commission Chairman Peter O’Bryan said the artificial sweetener sucralose and the pharmaceutical chemical acetaminophen are usually accepted as human-sewage markers, but the county needs FDEP’s procedural blessing before testing for those chemicals.
“Our staff has talked to their chemical consultant and the FDEP has no list that would confirm a biosolid source, but they said they would look into it,” O’Bryan said.
Ten days later O’Bryan had no reply.
“I would like to see a little more urgency in the FDEP response,” O’Bryan said.
The amount of bio-sludge dumped in Indian River County has been increasing as the substance has been banned in other watersheds.
The 3,000-acre Pressley Ranch is among three ranches near the lake accepting bio-sludge, and it receives the greatest amount.
More than 11,000 tons of human waste from 12 sources in Miami-Dade and Broward counties have been spread at the ranch since 2015.
“I don’t want to criminalize sludge,” County Commissioner Bob Solari said, “but the amounts being applied don’t have anything to do with farming. It has to do with the disposal of human waste.”
Faced with inaction by FDEP, the commission tasked County Attorney Dylan Reingold with drafting an ordinance prohibiting the application of bio-sludge in the county, which will be presented at a July meeting.