Every year, more than 90 companies across Florida pump the waste from about 100,000 septic tanks. Where does it all end up? State officials estimate 40 million gallons of it is treated with lime and then sprayed on farmers' fields as fertilizer.
But the septic tank waste is a potential wellspring of disease and can lead to water pollution and toxic algae blooms. So last year, the Legislature voted to ban the practice known as "land application" starting in 2016, and in the meantime ordered state health officials to look for alternatives.
This year, though, water pollution and the spread of disease are far less of a political concern, and the probusiness Legislature is poised to repeal the ban before it even takes effect.
The House passed HB 1479, which lifts the ban, by a vote of 89-25 on Monday despite strong opposition from environmental groups such as Audubon of Florida.
During Monday's debate, one lawmaker, Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, urged his colleagues to repeal the ban because keeping it in place would drive up the cost of disposal, which he compared to imposing a tax on people with septic tanks. Audubon's Eric Draper called that bizarre reasoning for rejecting a measure designed to clean up the state's most widespread pollution problem.
A critic of the bill, Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, pointed out that pollution from sewage waste has fouled once-pristine Wakulla Springs, creating such murky conditions that the attraction's glass bottom boats no longer operate.
"The springs have been devastated, folks," Pafford said.
The state Department of Health has issued permits to 92 companies to pump out septic tank waste and haul it to farms. In the Tampa Bay region, 15 are based in Hillsborough County, five in Hernando County, four in Citrus and one in Pasco.
One of the oldest is Nuckles Septic Tank Services, which operates in the shadow of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in Tampa. Four generations of Nuckles family members have run the company, although every year the trucks have to go farther and farther out to find farms that haven't been converted into suburban sprawl.
Nuckles hauls its waste to a 257-acre farm in southeastern Hillsborough, said co-owner Todd Nuckles, but some others "are taking it out of the county to Hernando and Polk."
While spreading it on pastures may lead to pollution, he contended, "it's a drop in the bucket by comparison" to the fertilizer and other pollutants washed into waterways by rain storms.
Nuckles said the treatment process used on the waste prior to spraying it leaves it so odor-free "that in 30 minutes time you'd never know a truck was in the field."
But the state still gets complaints about it, said Gerald Briggs, chief of the bureau of onsite sewage programs for the Department of Health.
"When people see trucks going by and they see it being sprayed on the fields, there's a negative reaction," he said. "People have claimed they're getting ill. … We've never been able to substantiate any of those claims."
Briggs said the department keeps a record of where those 92 haulers are spraying the septic tank waste — but the list he provided a reporter contained only the addresses of the haulers, not a location for the farms where the waste was dumped.
"I didn't realize there was a disconnect between the list and the addresses," he said.
The debate over septic tank waste takes place as Gov. Rick Scott and legislative and business leaders across the state have been complaining about new water pollution rules being imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The rules are aimed at cleaning up excess nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, which comes from fertilizer and sewage flowing into the state's lakes, rivers and other waterways. Pollution from those sources feeds the increase in algae blooms that kill fish and cause respiratory problems and rashes among swimmers and beachgoers.
Meanwhile, a task force trying to clean up pollution tainting the state's popular springs pushed through legislation last year that targeted the waste from Florida's 2.6 million septic tanks, more than half of which are more than 30 years old and may be leaking.
The new law required inspections every five years to check for leaks, at an estimated cost of $100 and $150, and banned spreading the waste on land. Briggs' bureau came up with a report on alternative ways of disposing of the waste, including taking it to sewer plants for treatment and dumping it in landfills — both options likely to make disposal cost more.
But septic tank owners rebelled against spending any money checking their tanks for leaks, and the septic tank haulers objected to banning land spreading. Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, filed bills to repeal both the inspections and the ban.
The inspection bill, HB 13, passed the House two weeks ago 110-3 but has stalled in the Senate. Today is expected to be the last day of the legislative session, but there is no indication whether the Senate will pass either of Coley's bills.
Times news artist Darla Cameron and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report, which contains information from the Tallahassee Democrat. Craig Pittman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.