Today in Tallahassee, the new Florida Legislature looks poised to ensure that future generations inherit a more polluted state. An innocuous sounding plan by Republican leaders to delay for six months the implementation of a state septic tank inspection program is just a prelude to repealing the program next spring. That may satisfy angry constituents in rural Florida, but it will further foul the water all Floridians depend on. It would be just one more example of how state government can't be trusted to comply with the nation's Clean Water Act — which will ultimately cost all taxpayers.
The septic tank inspection program passed earlier this year as part of a broader water management plan (Senate Bill 550) at the urging of environmentally minded Republicans. It has garnered little notice outside rural communities as most Floridians live in urban settings and take personal responsibility for their sewage by paying a monthly fee to a wastewater service.
Under the new law that takes effect Jan. 1, septic tank owners are required to have their tank inspected once every five years to ensure it is functioning properly and is not leaching nitrogen and nitrates into the water table, ultimately fouling waterways.
It was already illegal in Florida to not maintain a septic tank. But violations of that law often aren't detected until months or years after pollution has begun, when untreated sewage appears at ground level. The Department of Health believes between 15 and 20 percent of the state's 2.5 million septic tanks are polluting the water table, greatly harming Florida's springs and other water bodies. And it's estimated more than half of the state's septic tanks are 30 years or older.
Septic tank owners complain the inspection plan amounts to big government picking their pocket. Fraudulent estimates of what inspections cost — $500 — have fueled outrage further. But the facts are these: State officials estimate the inspections, conducted by private companies, will cost roughly $150, or $30 a year. That's far less than most urban Floridians pay to ensure their sewage doesn't pollute waterways. And the bill provides for grants for owners who can't afford that sum.
If an inspection determines that a septic tank needs to be pumped or replaced, owners will face additional costs. But that requirement to take personal responsibility is already in law. The alternative is to let the pollution continue to happen, ultimately taxing all Floridians to clean it up. Is that fair?
Sadly, state political leaders have refused for a dozen years to comply with the Clean Water Act even as evidence has grown of environmental decay, from dying springs to failing oyster beds. And Monday the federal Environmental Protection Agency said it would delay another 15 months before enforcing quality standards for Florida's surface water. Legislative leaders' response: Threaten to make waters even dirtier. Lawmakers who vote to delay the state septic tank inspection program need to answer how they propose to clean up Florida's waterways and whom they expect to pay.