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Tough Times for the Turd Tug

By any right Paul Lautner should be a wealthy fellow. For the past four years, he has offered a practical solution to a vexing problem. The question is how to rid your household of sewage if your household happens to be a boat. The solution is the Turd Tug, a 21-foot skiff on which Lautner wanders Fort Lauderdale's waterways, ready at a moment's notice to remove human excrement from any vessel for the reasonable fee of 50 cents per gallon.

But Lautner is not a millionaire, and last week he put his beloved Turd Tug up for sale. Two things have sabotaged his march toward riches, he says. First, live-aboard boaters in the Venice of America still prefer the piggish practice of illegally dumping their raw sewage overboard instead of calling him. Second, city commissioners have nearly killed his business with a new law meant to fight the same problem he's addressing.

Lautner came south from Port Huron, Michigan, with a one-way plane ticket and $150 cash. He had been laid off from his job at a car factory and spent a year watching TV and collecting unemployment checks. "One day I woke up and said, 'To hell with it, I'm moving to Florida,'" he recalls.

Installed in Fort Lauderdale, he worked as a golf course superintendent and got a good tan. Then on a September evening four years ago, he suffered a minor stroke of genius.

"We were sitting there having cocktails on Hendricks Isle, and the competition drove by in his boat," Lautner says, referring to Joe Miano, owner of Waste Busters Marine Pumpout Service. "I turned to my wife and said, 'Hey honey, there goes the turd tug.' We looked at each other and both thought the same thing: Maybe we oughta try that."

Lautner set about proving that America, and South Florida in particular, is still the land of opportunity. With $25,000 saved from his golf course job, he bought a flatbottom Carolina Skiff and an Evinrude outboard. He rigged the little boat with a gigantic, 450-gallon plastic holding tank, attached a pump to the tank and some hoses to the pump. Finally he made two big signs, one for port and one for starboard. The signs read: Turd Tug, Inc.

From the start the name was a double-edged sword. Some of the city's more genteel yachtsmen looked down their noses at Lautner. Telephone information operators hung up on potential clients, thinking the name was a joke. "At city commission meetings they would always say the name of my competitor, Waste Busters, and then refer to me as 'the other guy,'" Lautner sniffs.

On the other hand, the name was so catchy that Lautner decided against any other advertising. "I could wear a clown suit and people wouldn't notice me, but you put up a sign with a derogatory word, they definitely notice," he says. "I wanted it to be as obnoxious as possible."

If the name is obnoxious, it's in counterpoint to Lautner himself. Typically attired in forest green khaki shorts and a sweatshirt, he wisecracks his way up and down the New River visiting about 70 customers per week, often departing with heartfelt urgings that they eat more. Some are repeat clients with long-term service contracts. Others are one-time jobs, boaters who call on the marine radio or simply holler at Lautner when he passes by.

Average time for a pump-out is less than ten minutes. On a recent day Lautner made $170 before noon and burned only $4 in gas. When his tank fills up he uses a city pump station near the Broward Center for the Performing Arts to dump his cargo into the sewer system. The whole enterprise is surprisingly odor-free, and thanks to an ingenious freshwater spray valve that cleans the inside of his pump-out hoses, Lautner never even gets his hands dirty.

"Great idea," proclaims Gus, a professional yacht captain fresh in from New Gloucester, Maine, on a 79-foot Hatteras cabin cruiser. "I've worked on boats for 24 years and [have] never seen this type of thing before." (Gus refuses to get personally involved with marine sewage ever since an unfortunate occurrence in Key West years ago. The toilet aboard his boss' boat exploded.)

"It's an important service," says Rel Davis, who lives on a houseboat on the New River and is writing "a self-help book from the perspective of a practicing witch." Davis notes: "If [Lautner] weren't here, I'd have to drive my boat all the way downtown to the nearest pump-out station."

Or simply dump his household sewage in the water.
That is what Lautner thinks most live-aboard boaters still do, despite a flurry of new laws meant to halt the practice. Miano, of Waste Busters, agrees. "I would say, percentage-wise, of all the boats in Broward County only about 30 percent comply," he says. "If they all complied, I'd have six boats out here working night and day."

Beginning in October 1994, the Florida Clean Vessel Act makes it a crime for any boater to dump untreated sewage within three miles of the coastline. Soon the Florida Marine Patrol began a series of crackdowns on local live-aboards, doling out $250 fines. Around the same time, county and city biologists identified persistent high levels of disease-carrying fecal coliform bacteria in two locales -- along the north fork of the New River between Broward and Sunrise boulevards, and in the canals bordering the man-made finger islands stretching north from Las Olas Boulevard.

"Warm-blooded mammals" are at the root of the problem, according to the most recent report by the county's Department of Environmental Resource Protection. There's still some spirited debate about whether these mammals might include pet monkeys, Muscovy ducks, or even manatees -- or human beings indirectly, via hidden breaks in city sewer lines -- but since 1993 the City of Fort Lauderdale has passed a series of increasingly stringent ordinances targeting live-aboard boaters. By far the highest concentration of these mammals live on 556 vessels docked along the Las Olas Isles.

At first the new city laws favored the Turd Tug because they gave boaters and homeowners the option either of installing land-based pump-out stations next to mooring sites or arranging for visits from one of the two competing marine night soil men. But on May 6 last year city commissioners changed the rules once more.

The new law forces homeowners who rent dock space to install expensive marine pump-out stations, and requires that live-aboard boaters hitch their vessels to the systems whenever they're docked.

After losing about 30 of his regular customers, Lautner recently decided to call it quits. He ran an advertisement in a Key West newspaper, knowing that the Southernmost City has chronic live-aboard sewage problems and nothing like the Turd Tug.

Miano says he's lost 25 percent of his business to the newest ordinance but plans to stay in the game. "I might come close to breaking even, but I won't know till the end of the year," he says.

When the Turd Tug sails off into the sunset, Lautner won't be on it. He's now a salesman for a company that installs the new marine sanitation pump-out stations. Thanks in part to a flood of federal grant money that offsets much of the cost of installation, he's sold 31 units on Hendricks Isle and the Isle of Venice, all within a few blocks of his home. Lautner's archnemesis of the waterways, Miano, has started selling and installing the pump stations, too. His total so far: 33.

Like anyone who makes his or her living on the water, Lautner has some good tales to tell. One day he rescued a dog from drowning, another time a man. (Neither one expressed any gratitude.) And then there was the time Ivana Trump's captain called from Palm Beach for a pump-out. A lot of the time, though, life on the Turd Tug has been pretty boring, Lautner concedes.

He says he won't miss the water. "Are you kidding me? If I didn't have to have one for my business, I'd never own a boat.


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