Well undone

Harmel Peterson has lived in his Pinellas County home for 33 years, but not until 1998 did he find out what county officials discovered four years earlier: Wells in his neck of the woods showed signs of ammonia and nitrogen -- early evidence of contamination.

"I was incredulous," he says. "Nobody notified me. The county sure wasn't advertising it."

Ammonia and nitrogen can become nitrites and nitrates; because they are linked to cancers, miscarriages, birth defects and infant mortalities, both are rigidly controlled by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The culprit was the nearby South Cross Bayou Waste Water Treatment Facility. The menace was its use of a widespread wastewater disposal method known as injection wells, which inject minimally treated sewage to various depths in the earth. The problem was that wastewater injected about 1,000 feet underground was, near Peterson's property, starting to rise.

Ironically, Peterson is a retired water-treatment engineer. When he discovered dark, dank, smelly water in his well, "I put in a reverse osmosis system to treat the water we use for drinking."

Yet since he learned about the county's deceit, the state also has begun testing his well. "So far, they say my water is within parameters, but I know they still have the injection business going on, and that the mess is still moving up. It's a hot topic.

"I should have been informed years ago, when the government found out that `contamination` might come into my well," he says. "I keep on top of things now."

Suzi Ruhl, an expert on injection-well issues, has kept on top of things for years. She is president of the Tallahassee-based Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation Inc. (LEAF), a public-interest law firm that is deeply concerned about injecting wastes underneath Florida's sources of drinking water.

"Underground injection has been a failed, dangerous experiment," says Ruhl. "It is irresponsible wastewater management to inject known carcinogens into the earth, where they could reach the `aquifer`. This is waste made up of more than 260 chemicals, including heavy metals, and in places it is migrating upward into the underground source of drinking water."

LEAF is especially outraged over a proposal to overlook that migration. Burdened by population growth, specifically in South Florida, an alliance of utilities, local governments and private consultants has convinced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review and potentially ease restrictions on Florida's deepest wells. Those wells -- called Class I -- are sometimes drilled to 3,000 feet but, as in Peterson's example, more often go down only 1,000 feet.

Ruhl is incredulous. "For 20 years, the government and utilities have refused to acknowledge the flaws in the injection system. Now, with some utilities in violation and creating potential for future disaster, what does the EPA do? They suggest downgrading Florida's protective controls and issuing yet more permits. That means Florida's standard would be lower than any other in the country."

The EPA denies that a change would threaten drinking-water reserves. If injection were ceased, they say, there would be nowhere to discharge wastewater. Though no decision has been made, the agency still is reviewing it.

Today, Class I wells daily shoot at least 400 million gallons of wastewater into Florida's belly. The South Miami-Dade facility alone contributes 150 million gallons. To grasp how much that is, visualize this: If you had a 20,000-gallon swimming pool, that volume equals filling your pool and emptying it 7,500 times a day.

Environmental endangerment can be stealthy, particularly an out-of-sight, out-of-mind procedure like injection wells. Dreamed up in the post-World War II years for getting rid of surplus war chemicals, injection wells proliferated in the 1960s and '70s to handle the growing population's wastewater crises.

When it dawned that injecting hazardous, industrial, domestic and radioactive waste could endanger underground drinking-water sources, Congress in 1976 passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. Its caveat for injection wells, the Underground Injection Control program, is clear: Injection is permitted only if it does not threaten a water source. Yet today, 60 percent of all U.S. hazardous waste is still disposed of via injection.

Of the five categories of wells, Class I -- those that inject the largest volumes of partially treated hazardous and nonhazardous wastes -- are most under fire from environmental activists.

Monsanto punched Florida's first Class I well back in 1963, in the Panhandle. Subsequently, the state's number of injection wells has soared, particularly since the early 1980s, when water-treatment folks, long used to depositing waste above ground, were overwhelmed by burgeoning growth.

The EPA urged deep injection, says Ruhl, in the belief that the underground barrier between the injection zone and the drinking-water source was impermeable.

And inject they did. Florida's coastal plains are now punctured with 116 deep-injection wells. But there are those who believe the Monsanto wells are to blame for some nastiness in Escambia Bay.

David M. Whitehead is a county commissioner in Escambia County, where the question of more injectors meets with his strong resistance. He recalls an anecdote told him by a retired Monsanto employee. It related an incident that occurred when the fellow was fishing with a cast net, about two and a half miles from the Monsanto well. The technique requires holding the lead line in one's mouth while working the line. After about a half-hour, "His lips went numb. Then it hit him. He recognized the effect and the odor." The ex-Monsanto man was all too familiar with it: a chemical manufactured by Monsanto that was routinely injected.

"I'll be real honest with you," says Whitehead: "I am seriously concerned."

So far, migration of municipal wastewater has been detected at the 17 deep injectors at South Miami-Dade and those in Pinellas and Palm Beach counties.

"Miami is the largest, so it gets the attention," says Andrew Bartlett, an EPA district director who oversees groundwater and underground injection control.

But while the Safe Drinking Water Act says injection must not threaten drinking water, nowhere does it say that injected waste must be contained. And Bartlett admits, "It is not known whether these migrations are carrying contaminants."

To find out, the EPA recently conducted sampling tests, looking for ammonia as an indicator of contamination; results are pending. In cases where utilities have done their own monitoring, they report no contamination. "That's like the fox guarding the hen house, though," muses Bartlett, "and that's why we gathered our own data."

Those findings will help the agency decide whether to ease restrictions, adhere to current standards or devise other methods of disposal, he says. But this much is clear already: The EPA does not believe the problems lie with design and construction of the wells, but rather that they were dead wrong about the ability of Florida's subgeology to hold and confine the waste: It can't.

In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey has identified at least 40 other deep injection facilities with the same problematic geology, where fluid migration is likely occurring or will in the future.

Contamination would be particularly onerous to lower-income people on private wells, who likely could afford neither independent testing nor bottled water. That the closest injection well to the Orlando area is located along Sykes Creek, on Merritt Island, is small consolation; we do, after all, venture beyond our back yards.

Class II injection wells differ from Class I bores in that they do penetrate underground sources of drinking water, typically at around 6,000 feet. They inject briny fluids in order to enhance oil and natural-gas production, then reinject those fluids -- which become by-products during the process -- for disposal.

The fact that Florida is home to oil production at all may come as a surprise. In fact, 66 Class II wells serve that purpose here. Exxon owns 44 of them in the Panhandle alone.

But "Florida's unpredictable underground geology has presented problems for some Class II injection," says Ed Garrett, a geologist with the Florida Geological Survey.

For instance, when Fort Myers oil producers discovered that Florida's underpinnings weren't holding up to the pressure of reinjection, they began disposing of their briny by-products in a shallow well. This brine can carry not only toxic metals but radioactive substances. Therefore, were it to migrate from the well, contaminants could be carried along.

The EPA assures that Class II wells do not "significantly" threaten underground water sources -- as long as they are strategically located, properly used and undergo regular testing.

"That's the theory," says LEAF's Ruhl. "The rationale is that they're just putting back what they took out. But the fact is that they inject from many sources, and there are not enough inspectors to stay on top of what's really going on."

LEAF harbors plenty of concerns about Class II wells, from inadequate regulations to poor monitoring and reporting. Moreover, in the older wells, no fault-free confining zone was required.

There is also the problem of radioactive waste. Naturally occurring radioactive substances break out as solids on the inner wall of a Class II well. During maintenance, this material is scraped and allowed to settle at the well's bottom.

Usually -- according to the guys who are supposed to know -- the stuff isn't much of a problem. That is, unless it is collected and stored in one place. Then it can be a potentially giant problem. And amazingly, Exxon did exactly that, storing its scrapings from those Panhandle wells into huge storage containers. After an eventual epiphany, supervisors called the EPA, who called an out-of-state hazardous-waste facility to haul it away.

Apart from Class I and II, three other categories of injection wells merit keen regulation.

Class III wells inject fluids to re-pump to the surface for mineral extraction. There are none in Florida.

Class IV wells inject hazardous or radioactive wastes directly into or above underground sources of drinking water and are now banned nationwide. But they remain worrisome, because although all known ones in Florida were closed in 1986, unknown ones could still exist, and they are hard to detect: a pipe above ground or a storm grate near or within a facility that may generate hazardous waste qualifies as a Class IV well. Worse, it is up to a citizen or regulatory agency to prove a violation.

All other wells fall into the Class V category, including disposal wells associated with condos and campgrounds, chemical companies, drainfields, electronic-component manufacturers, jails, hospitals, sink holes and large septic systems. With bottom-line regulation and underenforcement, waste released into some of Florida's estimated 51,000 Class V wells may or may not have an elevated concentration of contaminants.

While a few of those use advanced wastewater disposal systems, most are simply shallow holes in the ground. Mostly gravity-drained, they "inject" into the earth above, or directly into, an underground source of drinking water.

New Class V regulations now prohibit cesspools and highly restrict discharge from auto-repair bay wells. But affected vendors have seven years to comply.

One of the most disquieting stories about Class V wells comes from the Florida Keys, where John H. Paul, a professor of marine science at the University of South Florida, conducted a series of studies about injection wells and septic tanks. In Key Largo, Long and Saddle Bunch Keys, he injected a bacterial virus into wells, then looked for it in the surrounding water.

It did not take long. The virus showed up in adjacent canals and in distant bays, and it showed up in a matter of hours. "It hits the surface water pretty quickly," he says.

Paul's work suggests that wastewater and its organisms injected beneath the Florida Keys could pose a public health risk. Indeed, some Keys beaches had contamination-caused closures last year.

"Wastewater migration into surface water also may be responsible for the decrease in water quality and have an impact on reef communities," Paul says.

Paul Johnson, the owner of Environ-mental Solutions International and a board member of Reef Relief, an organization that works to protect U.S. and Caribbean coral reefs, agrees the shallow wells are lethal. He has also led a fierce fight to upgrade Class I injection in the Keys; Reef Relief helped toughen rules for injection wells in Monroe County.

As part of his effort, says Johnson, "We pointed out the outrageous slight-of-hand in monitoring," documenting the practice of some well owners who, if they found evidence that wastes were spreading, just moved the monitoring well.

Monroe County's deep wells also now are required to have advanced treatment, which removes all nutrients and contaminants, followed with disinfection with chlorination.

Reef Relief's goal is to process wastewater to a high standard for reuse, rather than inject any waste into the so-called confinement zone. "That's the black hole of the industry," Johnson says.

The fight continues elsewhere. As this article goes to press, LEAF is battling with legislators, utility owners and private consultants over an experimental Class V injection called Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR).

This technique injects treated and untreated surface or ground water into an underground source of drinking water for storage purposes. LEAF argues, among other problems, the practice will create impure, even polluted, stored water.

Proponents insist the plan simply stores surplus rainy-season water from Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee River, the St. Lucie River, designated water conservation areas and inland portions of some major canals. That water, they say, could then be used for everything from supplementing urban water needs, to helping wildlife, to keeping a minimum water level in Lake Okeechobee. The plan also would be part of the Everglades restoration effort.

When environmental writer Don Sutherland questioned the wisdom of the wells, in an article he wrote for the Florida Specifier, the powers at CH2M Hill, a Gainesville consulting and design firm and kingpin of aquifer storage and recovery systems, were infuriated.

"You have been led astray," responded CH2M Hill director David G. Pyne. "The article ... sows seeds of doubts ... `and` creates unwarranted fear among those who do not understand South Florida hydrogeology."

Like the EPA, which miscalculated Florida's hydrogeology years ago? They are approaching the idea gingerly, urging caution with its use in the Everglades. The EPA also voices concern that one effect might be surface-water contamination carried into aquifers that could be used as drinking water for several regions.

Pyne, in his letter to Sutherland, insisted that recharged water would "meet all primary drinking water standards, with the exception of coliform bacteria which ... die off rapidly."

Tell that to Harmel Peterson.

Or to Suzi Ruhl, who counters:

"The proposed bill provides an exemption for primary drinking-water regulations regarding coliform bacteria and sodium. By allowing them to be present in injected water, the bill fails to protect public health from the viruses and pathogens injected along with those coliforms."

Another problem: Currently, groundwater that has a concentration of 10,000 milligrams per liter or less of total dissolved solids is protected as an underground source of drinking water. The bill would reduce that to a concentration of 1,500 milligrams or less.

It sounds like a good thing, "at first glance," says Ruhl. "It isn't good, though. When you set a higher standard, more water is protected; reduce that number and you reduce the amount of water that's protected as a source of drinking water."

Pyne says the storage wells are "expected" to be located away from urban development. Still, there is no protection for adjacent rural landowners, while the proposal would protect those doing the injecting from legal accountability.

A loophole?

"Allowances," says Rich Duerling, program manager for the EPA's underground injection program in Florida.

Mired in politics, advocacy, special interests and the unknown, the fate of injection-well control totters on the brink, awaiting the decision of EPA and government regulators. Wrong action could promote not protection for people and the natural world, but peril.


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