For a guy chairing the Florida Senate committee safeguarding environmental preservation, Sen. Charlie Dean is fast becoming the face for dirty water. Dean, R-Inverness, is advocating a shortsighted and foolish plan to repeal mandatory septic tank inspections that are intended to reduce water pollution.
Dean's proposal is a continuation of a battle last year. In November, the Legislature pushed back the effective date of the inspections after approving the program during its spring session. Now Dean and others are trying to kill the program entirely, a foolish proposal considering that much of Florida's surface water already violates federal clean water standards. That has spawned a legal battle with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over who will pay for cleanup.
Dean's position is that any inspection program should be a matter of local choice. Exactly how can a local government require the Florida Department of Health or Environmental Protection to enforce standards tougher than the state's rules?
Legislators should flush this misguided proposal being drafted by Dean's committee. Its sole aim is to appease rural septic tank owners guarding their wallets and balking at shared environmental responsibility. Under the delayed law, septic tank owners would be required to have their tanks inspected once every five years. The idea is to catch leaks that could be sending nitrogen and nitrates into the water table, ultimately polluting the state's waterways. To offset cost concerns, the law established a grant program to help low-income residents pay for inspections and necessary repairs.
Regardless, legislators rushed to approve the delay in November's special session after septic tank owners complained about the expense — with estimates for private sector inspections varying from $150 to $500, depending on location. Spread over five years, it's still significantly cheaper than what other Floridians pay to safeguard the environment through central sewer services.
The inspections are imperative. The state Health Department currently checks about 17,000 tanks annually, a paltry number considering there are an estimated 2.6 million septic tanks in Florida, about half of which are at least 30 years old. About 10 percent of septic tanks are suspected of failing, meaning as many as a quarter-million systems could be replaced over 10 years.
Dean and the rest of the Legislature should get out of the way and let the inspection program begin. Turning a blind eye to antiquated septic tanks polluting state waterways is irresponsible and foists the ultimate cleanup costs on all Floridians.