Reef Madness

Just east of downtown Delray Beach, a yard-wide pipe runs beneath the beach, dipping under the sandy floor where the Atlantic laps against the shore. About a mile out, 95 feet under water, the other end of the tube opens up. Out of its barnacle-encrusted mouth spews partially treated sewage water generated by the roughly 211,000 souls living in Delray and Boynton Beach.

It's a rollicking submarine carnival down there. The pipe juts upward at a 30-degree angle, and a darkish mix of water and small solids belches out. Fish zip to and fro, churning through the discharge, feeding on its delectable debris. Some of the stuff rises to the top, creating a bubbling mosaic on the surface. But much of it is caught in the exceedingly strong current that's peculiar to that area of the southeast coast.

Although the flow varies with the number of tourists who happen to be staying in the two beach cities at any given time, the pipe dumps about 13 million gallons of partially treated effluent each day, according to municipal records.

Tons of "nutrients" that the pipe spits out each month can at times act as a virtual steroid for algae, which, in amounts too great, smother and kill coral reef. The nitrate-rich liquid is swept north to the nearby Gulf Stream Reef, where it saturates the coral.

This is the third-largest reef in the world, stretching from the Dry Tortugas in the Keys to West Palm Beach. Because of the burgeoning population in South Florida, it's also the most imperiled.

Members of Boynton Beach-based Reef Rescue, a ragtag group of avid local divers, boat owners, and fishermen, will tell you that the most pressing threat facing Gulf Stream Reef is the nasty brew spitting out of that pipe. For years, the Boynton-Delray wastewater treatment plant has flushed water offshore, one of six such plants in the tricounty area that rids itself of wastewater this way. This one is especially close to a stretch of pristine reef, and it's a favorite spot for scuba divers, environmentalists say.

Reef Rescue's director, Ed Tichenor, offers a comparison on the group's website to explain, using a household product, what's happening down there. In December 2003, just more than 77,500 pounds of nitrogen was discharged from the outfall. "According to the directions on the Scott's Turf Builder bag, this amount of fertilizer will treat an area four miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide for a two month period," the Reef Rescue website extrapolates.

This reef is no mere offshore curiosity, of interest only to occasional passing tourists or scuba nuts. The health of Florida's reef is essential to the state's economy, state officials concede. It's big business. Florida's reefs provide 61,000 jobs — everything from selling bait and diving equipment to servicing boats and providing lodging for water enthusiasts — and generate $1.9 billion in annual income for residents of Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami-Dade counties, according to a report prepared for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection earlier this year.

Aside from the economy, healthy coral reefs are vital to sea life. Like the rain forests of terra firma, the coral reefs aid the balance of life in the underwater world. They act as nurseries and pit stops for a vast array of fish, amphibians, and crustaceans. Reefs create a nexus among land, air, and water.

For the past four years, Tichenor has led a tenacious crusade to persuade state regulators to make the Boynton plant stop or drastically reduce dumping into the ocean. It's a campaign for which he's ideally suited. A former environmental scientist in New Jersey, he spent many years monitoring industrial wastewater discharges to establish if they were in compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. He worked closely with New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, which — unlike its Florida counterpart, he says — came down on violators like a lion on a wildebeest.

But Tichenor saw a chance for change when the Florida DEP was due to renew the plant's dumping permit in June 2005. At first, the DEP gave him the brushoff, telling him at one point to contact his congressman if he was so interested in protecting the reef. But Tichenor hammered away with the kind of detailed reports and damning data that only a former environmental investigator could produce.

The agency has now asked the plant to demonstrate that its wastewater isn't harming the reef, as required by the Clean Water Act.

"They tried to dismiss us initially," Tichenor says of the Florida DEP, to which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has delegated responsibility for enforcing the Clean Water Act in Florida. "But these are environmental investigation reports that they can't disregard."

Environmental activists are awed by Reef Rescue's success in getting even this far in Florida's laissez faire regulatory milieu. "The DEP," one Tallahassee-based clean-water advocate says with guarded understatement, "is typically very unresponsive."

Knocking heads is starting to pay off.

As Ed Tichenor and three fellow members of Reef Rescue don their scuba gear one July morning, there's a sense of anticipation that belies the fact that they've explored this stretch of coral reef scores of times before. Perhaps the excitement ripples because the sea surface on this Saturday morning in early July is lake-like calm. Maybe it's because surprises often lurk around the ancient reef below.

The 34-foot dive boat is a mile southeast of the Boynton Beach Inlet, through which most of the tourist fishing and diving boats pass on their way to this almost three-mile-long coral formation called Gulf Stream Reef.

Strapping on a gladiator's amount of tubes, tanks, belts, and gizmos, Kurt Spaugh offers his opinion of why the Gulf Stream Reef is like no other. A worldwide diver, Spaugh is tall and bulky, with long hair pulled back in a ponytail.

"The main thing is the shape of Florida," he says, grabbing a waterproof map of the Florida coast. Following the coast from Miami to Jupiter, he points out a coastal anomaly in the Boynton Beach area, where the shore juts sharply to the northeast. When the Gulf Stream current reaches this spot, it sweeps across and along the Gulf Stream Reef.

"You have this unique interaction between the pelagic [deep-sea] world and the reef world, and it's a goddamned festival down there, all the time," he says. "You just don't know what you're going to see. You'll be down there surrounded by a school of dolphin. We sat down on the bottom in October, then looked up and there were king mackerel going over — must have been 5,000. We lay there for five minutes. They blotted out the sun."

Such a spectacle is becoming rarer as the reefs continue to fade at an alarming rate.

About 27 percent of coral reefs once found along the mainland United States have disappeared, according to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and 75 percent of what remains will be gone in the next 30 years if nothing is done to protect them.

Human activity is responsible for most coral loss.

"I call it the Big Three Disturbances that people are visiting on the coral reefs," says John Ogden, director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography and a professor of biology at the University of South Florida. "First is fishing. Second, land-based pollution sources, in particular sewer outfalls. Third is global warming. "

Communities in South Florida continue to dump partially treated sewage water into the ocean because of its enormous capacity to absorb, dilute, and metabolize this stuff, he says, but the outbreak of algae blooms proves that "you can go too far." The sewage water dumped by the Boynton plant goes through several treatment steps. It's first held in an aeration tank that promotes the growth of helpful microorganisms that eat harmful matter; a sedimentation tank allows those organisms and solid waste to settle out; then the water is treated with chlorine before it's sent to the ocean.

Tichenor suggests that, short of using all of the effluent to water plants on land, the best way to solve the wastewater problem is an additional step in treatment, making the water virtually drinkable.

At its most basic, a coral reef is a living organism. Coral polyps look like jellyfish, to which they are closely related. A newborn polyp floats in the water until it attaches to a hard surface, which is more often than not an existing coral reef. It then begins to build a hard shell by creating calcium carbonate, or limestone. The coral polyps feed mainly at night by sticking their tentacles out of their calcium casings and collecting plankton that floats by. As the polyps die, the shells remain, and new polyps attach to the empty shells.

Large reefs consist of millions of such living polyps, and the limestone remains of many millions more that lived as long as thousands of years ago.

Coral reefs are among the most fragile of ecosystems because they thrive only in shallow, salty water into which the sun can easily penetrate. The rainbow of colors that coral comes in is from the symbiotic relationship it has with various species of algae. The algae expel oxygen and nutrients needed by the polyps, which in turn provide the carbon dioxide that algae require.

For piscine deep-sea travelers, the palace built by coral polyps is a popular destination, kind of like gasoline stations, grocery stores, and hair salons are for humans.

"Deep-sea fish like to come in because they like to get cleaned," Spaugh explains while resting between dives. Tiny cleaner fish, such as wrasses and gobies, live among the reefs, waiting to pick bacteria and dead skin off the deep-sea visitors, such as grouper and stingrays. "Some fish come up and stop and change colors to indicate that they want to be cleaned," he says. "They open up their gills, and the little fish eat all the parasites off their skin. They need to do that or they'll die."

While Spaugh, Tichenor, and the other divers are underwater, the boat's captain, Richard Glover, keeps watch over the flagged buoys tethered to them. Glover, who looks like a less threatening version of Harvey Keitel, talks about what this reef means to him and others in business here.

"People come out to see the coral and fish and turtles," he says. "If the reef dies, that's all gone. I don't think people realize how much revenue this brings into cities. People from all over come down here to dive this reef because it's one of the last living reefs on the Florida coast. I mean, the Keys, they're dead. This here is the best diving — anywhere."

As one who makes his living from the reef, Glover, of course, can't help but show some bias toward it.

Ogden looks at it a bit more objectively. "It's true that there's been a terrible decline in the Keys and the Caribbean in general," he says. "But you can still find pieces of it in corners that are very nice. Nevertheless, [your preference] all has to do with what you want to do, and one of the features of the areas off of Palm Beach and Broward is that there is a high coral cover of one or two species. It's very dramatic."

Ed Tichenor figured he'd given up investigating environmental pollution when he left New Jersey in 1991 and moved to Palm Beach County, where he now lives in an apartment in the tiny burg of Hypoluxo. He opened a small business that manufactured and sold window blinds. His journey back into the field was as much happenstance as the way he'd stumbled into the line of work in the first place.

Tichenor is 56 years old, with a sandy-red mustache and a face like a plush toy. His speech is measured as he patiently explains scientific concepts to laymen. Diving is his all-consuming pastime, and he and his girlfriend, Terry Saint Jean, relish the Saturday-afternoon "dive naps" as much as the morning's workout underwater. An early riser, he operates his business out of a warehouse bay not far from the sewage treatment plant that's consumed so much of his time the past few years.

A New Jersey native with claims to ancestors who founded the city of Newark, Tichenor earned a degree in biology from Tulane University in New Orleans, but after graduating, he found there weren't any jobs in that field. He instead got a job with Drew Chemical in New Jersey. The company developed chemicals to prevent corrosion in industrial boilers, which were used to steam water — like home water radiators on a huge scale. "In conjunction with that," he recalls, "they had a little lab where they'd analyze what chemicals people would need in boiler water."

He and another Drew employee started using the company's equipment for side projects. "I needed his equipment, he needed mine, so we went out and sold some accounts and brought the stuff in and did analyses," he says. Tichenor developed a disease inhibitor for aquarium fish called CopperSafe that is still produced today. With the money they made, they bought their own equipment and opened a business together.

Their laboratory was modest, set up to do very basic analyses, such as testing drinking water for impurities and conducting bacterial analyses in lakes, ponds, and swimming pools. The company was certified by the state to do those tests.

It probably would have remained small time had it not been for the national headlines in 1978 made by Love Canal, a town near Niagara Falls that became so saturated with toxic industrial chemicals during the previous 40 years that it became virtually uninhabitable.

"What happened in the late '70s and late '80s, states started passing all these environmental regulations," Tichenor says. In New Jersey, the law was called the Environmental Cleanup Responsibility Act, or ECRA. "Which we called the 'Environmental Consultants Retirement Act,'" he says with a laugh. "ECRA basically said if there's an industrial real estate transaction, it would trigger an environmental investigation and cleanup. They had no idea of the repercussions." The law required that all analyses be done by a lab certified by the State of New Jersey, and Tichenor's was one of only a handful that had been. "Overnight, all this work fell in our lap."

His company also handled monitoring for companies as they complied with the Clean Water Act. Companies that discharge wastewater must have it routinely analyzed. He tested discharge from the Picatinny Arsenal, a U.S. Army weapons manufacturing site in northwest New Jersey. Once, after collecting water from a trout stream into which the arsenal dumped wastewater, he ended up separating out pure nitroglycerin, which they'd been making at that plant. When he called to ask what to do with the highly explosive stuff, he was told to "just pour it down the drain, slowly, with some water," he says, stark evidence that real environmental protection had a long way to go. Another time, he says, he found an actual bomb lying near a testing point at a stream.

The ECRA law sparked numerous multimillion-dollar cleanups and drawn-out litigation. At first, Tichenor was hired directly by companies affected by ECRA, but as time went on, he began working for consulting firms that sprang up around the burgeoning field. Eventually, he sold his share of the company and went to work for one of those consulting companies, whose most notable job was the infamous case of groundwater contamination in Woburn, Massachusetts. (John Travolta played the lead attorney in A Civil Action, the movie based on the case. Tichenor, who conducted organic testing in the case, was, alas, unportrayed.)

Much of his work during those years was developing and conducting ground testing for companies to demonstrate that they hadn't polluted the soil. This experience would prove invaluable years down the line as he began diving the reefs.

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.

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.

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."

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson