Human waste contributes to nutrient overload

OKEECHOBEE — Residuals. Biosolids. Outfall.

Calling human waste by any other name does not make it smell sweeter … or reduce the nutrient load … or lessen the impact on Florida’s environmentally-sensitive waters, of the excrement flushed away by Florida’s 21 million residents and 113 million annual visitors.

Ever wonder what happens to the “waste” after you flush?

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, as of Aug. 27, 2018, there were 141 sites in Florida permitted for the landspreading of biosolids (sewage sludge). Polk County had the most permitted sites with 24, followed by Hernando, Citrus and Osceola counties with 8 each. Special to the Okeechobee News/FDEP.

Even when the waste is treated to kill pathogens (like fecal coliform bacteria), the phosphorus and nitrogen content contributes to the high nutrient load that winds up in waterways, helping to fuel algal blooms. Also, consider the pharmaceuticals, artificial sweeteners and household chemicals in the waste that wind up in the waterways.

Over the years, the Florida Legislature has passed some restrictions on the disposal of human waste. But such laws usually take a long time to phase in, and it seems no matter how well-meaning the legislation’s original author, someone always manages to add a loophole.

According to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, biosolids are the solid, semisolid or liquid material produced during the treatment of domestic wastewater. Biosolids are also called “sewage sludge” according to FDEP.

Per FDEP, a wastewater treatment facility can choose from several use or disposal options for biosolids including:

• Landfill;
• Transfer to another facility;
• Land application;
• Distribution and marketing as fertilizer;
• Incineration; or,
• Bioenergy.

According to FDEP, most utilities use the land application, landfill or distribution as fertilizer options.

In 2010, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) formally adopted new rules for the management of wastewater biosolids. The rule includes major revisions to the old management system, most notably requiring permits for land application sites and changing the term “Domestic Wastewater Residuals” to “Biosolids.”

Note: “Treatment” refers to reduction of pathogens. Treatment does not affect the nutrient content.

The permitting deadline for biosolids land applications sites was Jan. 1, 2013.

In addition, the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Plan, passed by the Florida Legislature in 2007, restricting landspreading of biosolids in the Lake Okeechobee watershed by 2013. The use of biosolids is not banned completely, even in sensitive watersheds. The statute states that: “The department (FDEP) may not authorize the disposal of domestic wastewater biosolids within the Lake Okeechobee watershed unless the applicant can affirmatively demonstrate that the phosphorus in the biosolids will not add to phosphorus loadings in Lake Okeechobee or its tributaries. This demonstration shall be based on achieving a net balance between phosphorus imports relative to exports on the permitted application site. Exports shall include only phosphorus removed from the Lake Okeechobee watershed through products generated on the permitted application site. This prohibition does not apply to Class AA biosolids that are marketed and distributed as fertilizer products in accordance with department rule.”

According to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Services (IFAS), adding biosolids as a soil amendment can be more efficient and better for the environment than using chemical fertilizers. However, according to studies by Florida Audubon, before the state law changed, landspreading was done on a scale that added hundreds of times the nutrient load required to adequately fertilize the land. The goal of landspreading biosolids was not to improve the soil; the goal was to get rid of the waste in the least expensive way possible.

To recap: Until 2010, the State of Florida allowed landspreading of biosolids, without requiring a state permit for all land application sites. So we don’t know exactly how much human waste was spread on the land, or where that nutrient load was dumped prior to 2010. Also, while the FDEP Dairy Rule stopped runoff from dairies in the Lake Okeechobee watershed in 1989, to cut the nutrient load from runoff entering Lake Okeechobee, landspreading of human waste was allowed, even in sensitive watersheds, until 2013.

Because they did not have enough land to meet the FDEP requirements for retention ponds, berms and setbacks to recycle runoff onsite, or because they simply could not afford the FDEP Dairy Rule improvements, most of the 50 dairies in the watershed in 1986 closed or moved out of the watershed. About 19 remain.

Those dairy cows — who are still blamed by many environmentalists for the “legacy nutrient load” — were forced out of the watershed 30 years ago. The landspreading of human waste was not banned in the watershed until just 5 years ago. So why do some coastal media and politicians continue put most of the blame on the cows? At a recent Corps of Engineers hearing, one Okeechobee resident opined: “Cows don’t vote.”

Also of note: The Florida Legislature left a loophole in the law which allows unregulated distribution Class AA biosolids, which are the most highly processed type of human waste, throughout the state.

Local restrictions

Okeechobee County Commissioners were more proactive than the state lawmakers in protecting local waterways. In 2003, responding to complaints from local residents about the sight and the smell of truckloads of human waste that were hauled in from urban areas for landspreading on properties in rural Okeechobee County, the Okeechobee County Commission passed a county ordinance restricting the practice. The 2003 county ordinance, which did not ban landspreading completely, required setbacks and berms to keep the runoff out of waterways, and to provide a buffer between a landspreading site and other land uses. As happened with the dairies, those that could not meet the new requirements and still make a profit shut down business in Okeechobee County and moved elsewhere.

In April 2012, the county relaxed the 2003 ordinance, aligning it with the state law which restricts the landspreading of biosolids in the Lake Okeechobee watershed including all of Okeechobee County with the exception of the northeast corner, which is in the St. Johns River Water Management District.

In a 2016 report, IFAS estimated about a third of the 320,000 dry tons of biosolids produced by wastewater treatment plants in Florida each year are disposed of through land application, on land applications sites in the state. This does not count the Class AA biosolids; Class AA biosolids are classified as fertilizer and their use does not require a permit.

Urban areas produce the bulk of the biosolids. Land application sites are typically located in rural areas, according to the IFAS report.

Still wondering about “outfall”? That’s the topic for an upcoming story in this series. Here’s a hint: “All drains lead to the ocean.”

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FDEP regulates landspreading of waste

Special to the Okeechobee News

Class B biosolids are landspread in Florida on sites with permits from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).

FDEP requires the wastewater treatment facility to treat and periodically monitor the biosolids to be land applied at the sites, explained Dee Ann Miller of FDEP. In addition to frequent compliance inspections to ensure the operator adheres to permit requirements and conditions, the operator is required to maintain logs of all application activity and monitoring reports to document compliance with treatment requirements.

State and federal regulations establish requirements for biosolids treatment, management, pollutant limits, monitoring, record keeping, reporting, use and disposal. These regulations are designed to prevent or minimize potential impacts from nutrients, heavy metals and pathogens (i.e. disease-causing organisms) to surface and ground waters, she continued.

To further minimize potential nutrient impacts from land applied biosolids, state rules also require that a nutrient management plan, prepared by a professional engineer or by a certified nutrient management planner, be submitted as part of the application process. The nutrient management plan establishes the rate at which all biosolids, soil amendments, and other nutrient sources are applied in order to minimize the amount of nutrients discharged to waters of the state, she explained. The FDEP rules also include water quality protections such as:

• Increased setbacks to surface waters (at least 200 feet compared to 10 meters under Part 503);
• Required setbacks of at least 200 feet to conduits to ground water; and,
• Site slope restrictions (none are specified under Part 503) and minimum depth to ground water at the time of application.

Florida law restricts biosolids land applied in the Lake Okeechobee, St. Lucie River, and Caloosahatchee River watersheds. This statute states that: “The department may not authorize the disposal of domestic wastewater biosolids within the Lake Okeechobee watershed unless the applicant can affirmatively demonstrate that the phosphorus in the biosolids will not add to phosphorus loadings in Lake Okeechobee or its tributaries. This demonstration shall be based on achieving a net balance between phosphorus imports relative to exports on the permitted application site. Exports shall include only phosphorus removed from the Lake Okeechobee watershed through products generated on the permitted application site. This prohibition does not apply to Class AA biosolids that are marketed and distributed as fertilizer products in accordance with department rule.”

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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