BROOKSVILLE — Two years ago, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill requiring septic tanks to be inspected once every five years. This past session the Legislature repealed the law.
There was a caveat, though. Counties and municipalities with first magnitude springs would still be required to adopt a septic tank inspection ordinance unless the local governing bodies voted by a super majority to opt out of that requirement.
During a budget meeting Tuesday, at least two of Hernando's commissioners expressed a desire to do just that.
Hernando County is home to the Weeki Wachee spring, one of 33 first magnitude springs in the state. But Commissioner Dave Russell asked his fellow commissioners to consider opting out, saying the septic tank inspection would be "a real hardship on our constituents.''
Russell had the county attorney's office draft a resolution for Hernando to opt out of the new law. The resolution would allow the commission to hear from the public on the issue. It's slated for consideration on Tuesday.
The potential impact in Hernando is huge. In a county of roughly 75,000 homes, there are about 55,000 septic tanks, according to the Health Department. An inspection costs between $500 and $600.
"Thank goodness the state allowed us to opt out,'' county Commissioner Jim Adkins said.
The 2010 bill requiring septic tank inspections was sponsored by former state Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs. The law was part of a series of measures designed to protect Florida's springs from further pollution.
The evaluation ordinance would require a tank pump out and certification of the tank. It would also call for an evaluation of the drainfield's size, placement and state of upkeep.
Critics, however, called the inspection measure an unnecessary one-size-fits-all approach and started pushing for a repeal. Among the sponsors of the new law was Sen. Charlie Dean of Inverness, who argued that counties should set their own policies.
State Rep. Rob Schenck, a Spring Hill Republican, agreed. He called the inspection law repeal one of the most important outcomes of the session and is encouraging Hernando commissioners to opt out of the requirement.
"It's overburdensome government regulation that's going to cost hardworking families and retires on a fixed income unnecessary money, especially now in a tight economy," Schenck said.
State Rep. Rick Kriseman voted against the bill. Kriseman, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said counties with first magnitude springs should be required to adopt an inspection ordinance.
A few hundred dollars every five years to make sure a septic system is working properly is not an undue burden, Kriseman said.
"Is there a cost associated? Of course," he said. "But what's the cost of losing our first magnitude springs and the impact on the state not just from a tourism standpoint but environmentally."
A five-year inspection is a good idea, but failing septic tanks are likely far down on the list of sources of nitrate pollution in the springs, said Bob Knight, director of the Florida Springs Institute.
Properly working septic tanks fill with solids and the nitrogen-laden wastewater flows into the drainfield, Knight noted. In areas with permeable soils, that water quickly flows into the aquifer.
When a tank fails, the water in the drainfield reaches the surface and flows over land, and that is a real, if relatively small, source of pollution that would be caught by inspections, Knight said.
"The real problem is if you've got a lot of houses densely packed with septic tanks, you're putting an extremely high load of nitrogen into the groundwater," he said.
The springs would be best served by local governments that approve responsible development and encourage residents to minimize their use of fertilizer, the other primary source of nitrates, Knight said.
In Citrus County, home to three first magnitude springs, county staffers will soon bring a recommendation on whether to opt out of the requirement, said Gary Maidhof, operations and project officer.
Opting out looks like a viable option, said Maidhof, who called the five-year requirement well-meaning but "a hammer to address a swarm of flies."
He said state lawmakers erred when they gave local governments the power to completely opt out of septic regulation. A better plan, he said, would be to require septic tank inspections when a property is sold or a building permit is pulled for additions or improvements.
Beyond that, Maidhof said, the state needs to be proactive to address the biggest causes of pollution by encouraging local governments through financial incentives to extend sewer lines, add advanced wastewater treatment technology and build water reuse systems.
"We've got to start thinking long term," he said, "and that's not what we're seeing."