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The plant sits in Delray Beach just off Congress Avenue on 33 acres of immaculately groomed grass, all watered with the same nutrient-rich effluent that's dumped in the ocean. Tellingly, small signs jut out of the grass warning that such water is being used.
Hagel is quick to point out that the plant was not in violation of its permit when it submitted its renewal to the DEP. "We're below our discharge limits," he says. The problem is that the permit sets no limits on the level of nitrates. Low levels would likely not be harmful to the reef.
"All we're trying to do now is determine if there is a problem which we're not sure of," he says. "Is it us? Is it the ocean outfall? Is it a combination of the outfall and the Boynton Beach inlet?" Rainwater from lawns and pavement drains into a series of canals, which ultimately lead to the ocean through this inlet. "There are many... it's not something you can go out and point a finger. We're trying to put together a total scientific study rather than these divers going down and saying there's a problem."
Hagel won't even admit what every diver and half-serious fisherman on the bay knows well that the current moves strongly to the north, with his plant's effluent spurting across the reef. "Where does it really go?" he asks with seeming seriousness.
The plant has contracted with the federal government to monitor the reef waters. "We believe there could be many elements that could impact the reef," Hagel asserts. "One of those elements is the Boynton Beach inlet. When the tide goes in and out, it drains 900 million gallons a day, compared to our 12 to 13 million a day at our outfall."
But the monitoring the plant is contracting has been done before by Reef Rescue, which is fortunate enough to have an environmental scientist as its director. In fact, the plant will virtually duplicate the monitoring plan developed and used by Reef Rescue. The results of that monitoring were good enough to have already been cited in a handful of studies conducted by other researchers and the Florida DEP.
If nothing else, Reef Rescue's efforts have pressured the sewage plant to increase the amount of treated water it reuses to water golf courses and large developments instead of sending to the ocean.
"Twenty-five percent of water goes to reuse now," Hagel says. "We're increasing that, and at the present time, we're constructing reuse facilities that will take 50 percent of discharge for reuse. Long range, we'd like to make sure that 100 percent of our effluent is reused."
Linda Young, with the watchdog group Clean Water Network, says getting the DEP to do anything in regard to sewage plants is difficult.
"It is very unusual for DEP to require anything more of the dischargers than they want to do," she says. "In fact, I've been reviewing sewage plant permits on the Gulf Coast for the past couple of months, going through each of them one by one for a report I'm doing on sewage plant discharges. There's almost no enforcement happening, even when sewage plants have continuing violations."
Even though he's still in mid-skirmish over nitrate levels coming from the outfall, Tichenor has also come to question other risks in partially treated sewage water. The EPA has cited two parasitic pathogens as risks to fishermen, swimmers, and divers. Sewage plants in South Florida do not treat for these pathogens.
"They test for fecal coliform, which they chlorinate and kill within their operating standards," Tichenor says. "If this water was safe, they'd be dumping it on the beach. There's a reason they have it a mile offshore. My question is: How far away from the outfall do you have to be to be safe?"
Aside from human health, outfalls are a risk to reefs, according to an April 2006 study by the University of Florida that examined all six outfalls in southeast Florida: Boynton, Boca Raton, north Broward, Hollywood, and north and central Miami-Dade County. Last year, those plants dumped 396 million gallons of wastewater per day into the ocean.
Consider the result if Tichenor and his environment-friendly cohorts lose the fight.
If the dumping continues unabated, with a burgeoning South Florida population and ever-more-frequent ocean disturbances from hurricanes, the reefs to our east will eventually die, Tichenor contends. Divers would behold a landscape resembling the lunar surface. The schools of vividly colored fish that once dipped and turned and spun around the plentiful arms of living coral would be gone. The biodiversity of life that so defines a living reef would be a memory.
Once completely dead, the reef could start to break up, and beach residents would lose a primary source of protection from storm surge.
Asked to ponder this scenario, Tichenor mutters, "Rock, covered with algae." He adds: "You don't have to go back too far in human history to find [the moment] that people realized you don't shit where you eat. You'd think Florida would know that by now too."