Reef Madness

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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.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson