Reef Madness

Thanks to the Delray-Boynton pipe, there's a nitrate-stoked party down there.

By the early 1990s, Tichenor felt burned out by the heavy workload and disillusioned by the widespread exploitation of the ECRA provisions. Barely in his 40s, he made a clean break from that type of work after attending a trade show that offered the chance to own a franchise window shade business.

And environmental investigation?

"I was never going to do it again," he responds quickly.

Lynn Spaugh is a Saturday-morning dive-trip regular.
Colby Katz
Lynn Spaugh is a Saturday-morning dive-trip regular.
Elaine Blum

Along with a new business, he also took up a new Florida pastime: scuba diving on weekends. He bought a 32-foot fishing boat, which he named Alchemist, and kept it moored in the Florida Keys for weekend diving. But after several years, he discovered that the reef in his own backyard had as much or more to offer than those in the Keys.

The hobby appealed to him not just for the obvious reasons. "When you get certified in diving, you get a logbook and document the time spent underwater, the temperature, how much air you consume," he says. "I'd write down other things, about what coral and fish I saw. That's also one of the things you do during an environmental investigation — document everything you see."

In March 2002, he began noting a change in Gulf Stream Reef. Each week, he noted that a red algae was spreading. "Over six months, I tracked this algae bloom down the reef. It appeared to be a problem."

He called the Florida DEP and quickly learned that this wasn't New Jersey, with its aggressive commitment to preserving the environment. "My experience with the DEP in New Jersey was, when you notified them, they were all over you. They'd be out there in a second. They aggressively pursued."

He got no response from the Florida DEP. He wrote. He called. He contacted the DEP ombudsman's office. Nothing.

So he did what any ex-hazardous waste investigator would do: He wrote a report, outlining the location, the problem, and what needed to be done next, which was primarily to locate the nutrient source for the burgeoning algae. He sent it to the DEP. No response.

"Then I took it a step further," he recollects. He did a record search to review all permits that allowed dumping into the ocean. "I found the Delray outfall. I'd heard there was an outfall, but I assumed it had been closed down long ago." The sewage plant was the only entity permitted to dump in that vicinity.

With no help from state regulators, Tichenor and his fellow divers began mapping the algae bloom, which went through cycles of growth and retreat. Under its permit requirements, the sewage plant is required to submit reports to the DEP about how much outfall water is released, as well as levels of ammonia, nitrates, and fecal matter, among others.

Through observation, Tichenor found a correlation between high discharge levels of nitrates and algae growth. "The algae bloom is triggered when the plant is dumping about 1,200 pounds of nitrogen a day," he says. "If it dips below 1,200 pounds a day for four to six weeks, the algae dies off. When it gets above the number for about two weeks, the algae comes back."

The wastewater levels depend upon a few factors, primarily the increased population during the tourist season. The plant also disposes of this water to golf courses and a few larger subdivisions. "If it's very dry, they sell a lot. If it rains, they don't sell much. The nitrogen goes up and down because of that."

Tichenor eventually called the West Palm Beach branch of the DEP and asked it to look into the matter. "They told me, well, if you think there's a problem out there, why don't you call your congressmen and they can pass a law. I said, 'There is a law! It's called the Clean Water Act, and it's your job to enforce it. '"

Tichenor's group, with some funding from Palm Beach County, produced a second investigative report in February 2004 that they sent to the Atlanta regional headquarters of the federal EPA. The group was invited to make a presentation at National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Miami offices, but that went nowhere.

The Boynton sewer plant's dumping permit was due to expire in December 2005, and Reef Rescue saw its chance to strike. It submitted a report to the Florida DEP citing all its findings regarding the outfall and algae blooms and requested that the plant comply with the Clean Water Act. They also submitted a petition with 1,000 names making the same request.


To Tichenor's surprise, the DEP rejected the plant's permit application, citing data generated by Reef Rescue. The DEP requested that the utility come up with a regimen of monitoring to evaluate the impact of the outfall on the reef.

The sewage plant, which is overseen by the city commissions of Delray Beach and Boynton Beach, was at first unwilling to do what the DEP requested. "They blamed everything from hurricanes to sand from the Sahara Desert," Tichenor asserts. Its officials remain in a state of denial.

The plant's director, Robert Hagel, a jowly man with salt-and-pepper hair and a grandfatherly demeanor, doesn't have a cross word to say about the divers who've thrown a wrench into the permitting process, but he's not willing to concede much. Hagel's office is sparsely decorated.

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