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Reef Madness

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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."

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson