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Lawmaker profits from polluting sewer system

Golfers can encounter some tricky hazards at Tiger Point.

On bad days, balls hit down the fairway have vanished into ponds of recycled sewer water. Players complain of walking through mists of treated sewage on a course obliged to take water flushed from thousands of homes. Its holding pond has overflowed repeatedly, polluting national seashore waters supposedly protected for shellfish harvesting.

Excess sewage problems at Tiger Point have brought U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientists to study algae growth along the shoreline and pesticide residue in the sand. Finally, the state halted connection permits to the sewer system supplying the effluent.

Among the people profiting from this pollution source is the highest-ranking Democrat in the Florida House of Representatives.

In 1989, Pensacola Rep. Buzz Ritchie and several partners developing the Tiger Point subdivision sold its private utility system. That system now serves the town of Gulf Breeze and a booming suburban peninsula and dumps all of its wastewater on the golf course.

The bonds from that sale are the House minority leader's largest asset. Gulf Breeze owes him $859,504 for the Tiger Point system and paid him $46,225 in tax-free income in 1995, according to his latest financial disclosure report.

The Tiger Point system has polluted Florida waters since Gulf Breeze started sending its wastewater there in 1992. Five years later, an odd coalition of golfers and environmentalists claims state regulators failed to stop a chronic polluter _ and blames the political influence of Ritchie and his partners.

Frances Dunham, a coalition leader, said she is not sure why the Department of Environmental Protection kept approving new connections to an overflowing system, but "I can't imagine it would hurt that there are investors who do have some influence in the local community and statewide."

Ritchie replies that "it is just totally, absolutely wrong" for anyone to suggest he interfered with regulation of the Tiger Point sewer system.

He said he has never contacted DEP about the system, and nobody ever asked him to. "I don't recall ever getting any communication on this from anyone," he said.

Ritchie says he was an inactive investor in a utility partnership led by John Carr, a developer on the peninsula south of his Pensacola district. He recalls being vaguely aware that its sewer system discharged onto the golf course and "of news articles talking about problems down there."

He says he has no cause to be embarrassed about profiting from this sewer system.

"If it's a chronic pollution source, it certainly isn't something that's attributable to people who have debt in it," he said. "I own stock in a lot of different entities. You can't be responsible for everything everybody does."

Pete Simmons, a golfer who lives in the Tiger Point subdivision, wonders when somebody will take responsibility for this sewer system.

He has watched the receiving end of the system pump water from a dangerously high effluent pond onto the ground. He has seen nearby homes and swimming pools sprayed with effluent, fished golf balls from ponds on the fairways and walked into the clubhouse with wastewater dripping from his face.

"I tell you what Gulf Breeze bought _ a bucket of worms," he said.

"It's a sick system'

State Department of Environmental Protection and Gulf Breeze officials agree that Ritchie has never tried to influence regulatory or permit decisions concerning the Tiger Point utility, now called the South Santa Rosa Utility System.

Bobby Cooley, DEP's Pensacola office director, also defends his agency's enforcement performance at Tiger Point.

When DEP imposed a moratorium last fall on connection permits to the local sewer system, "that was the ultimate pressure that could be applied to this situation," he said.

Cooley traces Tiger Point's troubles to a decision made long ago to build one of its two 18-hole courses in a swamp. He said flooding problems have lessened considerably since the sprayed area was extended to the newer course in 1996. The utility plans to enhance its sewage disposal capacity by spraying a new area beside the Gulf Breeze Zoo.

That plan would let the sewer system put 150 inches of water yearly on the new site. It is opposed by local environmentalists, who petitioned for a hearing and accused DEP of colluding with "politically favored entities" to bail out the system.

Cooley questions their motives. "The only other alternative if they keep objecting is we continue in this moratorium forever," he said, and "you go around door to door asking people, are you volunteering to turn off your water? It's that ludicrous."

Environmentalists and unhappy golfers are not the only critics of this system and its regulators.

They have been joined by the National Park Service, which suspects Tiger Point has contributed to the smelly masses of decaying matter invading its Gulf Islands National Seashore. In a letter, the park service says the utility's expansion plans "represent a significant potential for degradation" of park waters.

Bill Leoffler, a DEP engineer in Pensacola who retired in 1996, said he tried for years to halt new connection permits to the Tiger Point system, and Cooley always overruled him.

Cooley also told engineers opposed to those permits not to "put anything in the files that disagrees with top management decisions," he said.

In Leoffler's opinion, new sewer connections to Tiger Point should have been stopped long ago.

"They're only about four years late, maybe five," he said, but "if you have the politics behind you and the money, that's the way it is. It's a sick system."

Development vs. environment

Gulf Breeze turned to a private utility 7 miles east of town at a time of regulatory trouble.

Robert Kriegel, Cooley's predecessor, was pressuring the town to improve an antiquated sewage treatment system that discharged directly into bay waters. The Tiger Point subdivision developers offered their sewer and water utility as an alternative, and "we accepted their proposal," Cooley said.

The acquisition cost municipal utility customers $11.2-million. Two sets of bonds were sold, and Rep. Ritchie and his partners ended up with $4.4-million in "subordinated bonds."

Gulf Breeze City Manager Edwin Eddy says this was done because existing utility revenues would not support the entire purchase cost.

The subordinate debt carried a higher interest rate because it was to be paid from "future tap fees," Eddy said. Thus, Ritchie's bond payments depended partly on new connections to the sewer system discharging at the Tiger Point golf course.

Gulf Breeze got rid of these high-interest bonds in 1994 but paid a premium: 136 percent of the outstanding loan.

As a result, Ritchie reported $334,000 in interest income from this sale through 1995 _ and the utility owed him $220,000 more than it did in 1990.

Ritchie also reported income from various real estate partnerships in the Gulf Breeze area. He said some may involve subdivisions connected to the sewer system he sold.

Environmentally, the Tiger Point plant had one major advantage over the municipal plant Gulf Breeze closed. It sprayed wastewater on a golf course, not into a bay. But the course bordered narrow Santa Rosa Sound, across from Gulf Islands National Seashore. The sound was classified as "shellfish harvesting" waters: no discharges of pollutants allowed.

The overflows from the golf course are not considered a public health threat. Few shellfish survive in the sound, and the treated sewage at Tiger Point has been generally free of fecal bacteria.

The Tiger Point plant is not an advanced wastewater system, however. Its effluent is rich in nutrients that can produce algae blooms and kill seagrasses.

Gulf Breeze built a pipeline to Tiger Point and began pumping its sewage there in 1992. New subdivisions along the way hooked up, paying fees that covered interest on the bonds.

From the outset, the wastewater they added to the system periodically overflowed the golf course and reached Santa Rosa Sound.

DEP officials say that to their knowledge, the Tiger Point facility has not been fined for any of the pollution problems mentioned in their files.

The DEP moratorium on sewer connections is taking a toll on local developers. Some have put septic tanks beside dry sewer lines or paid to acquire unused sewer permits. One threatened to sue leaders of the group fighting Gulf Breeze's sewer expansion plans.

Riley Hoggard, the natural resources chief at Gulf Islands National Seashore, worries that DEP will be pressured to let the system expand without requiring advanced wastewater treatment first.

He has seen Santa Rosa Sound suffer as development spreads across the Gulf Breeze peninsula. Brown foam, dead seagrass, masses of algae wash up, "decomposing and smelling and looking bad," he said. "Catfish and puffers, they can handle pretty wretched conditions, and they are starting to wash up."