Environmentalists oppose beach treatment plant

For years, as surrounding communities took steps to keep treated sewage out of area waterways, the wastewater treatment plant on Pensacola Beach has remained something of a non-issue.

Not anymore, said a group of people who gathered Thursday night to voice their opposition to a planned renewal of the treatment plant’s five-year permit.

If the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, which operates the plant, doesn’t make plans to find alternatives to the treated wastewater discharge, “we’re going to have to launch a public information campaign and embarrass them into doing it,” said Marty Donovan, a Pensacola real estate broker and former Pensacola city councilman.

Donovan and others at the meeting urged beach businesses and property owners to contact ECUA board members about the problem.

The plant releases an average of about 800,000 gallons a day of treated wastewater into the sound, ECUA said. During peak summer days, though, the amount can top two million gallons, critics said.

About 20 people gathered at the Santa Rosa Island Authority’s board room for the meeting, which was sponsored by the local League of Women Voters and three environmental groups. Several people urged the ECUA to find another method of discharging the effluent, such as piping it to Gulf Breeze, Pensacola or Navarre, where it can be sent to inland areas and sprayed onto designated land for disposal.

ECUA spokeswoman Nathalie Bowers said no one from the utility had been invited to the Thursday meeting.

The utility did send a one-page letter to sponsors of the meeting, explaining that building pipes to the mainland or to Gulf Breeze would “involve a major project with extraordinary expenses,” perhaps as much as $50 million.

The sewage water that is released from the Pensacola Beach plant is now treated to an advanced level and is actually cleaner than the surrounding sound water, the letter said.

The letter also notes the grant ECUA received to expand its reclaimed water system, allowing it to use the treated sewage water for irrigation purposes. State authorities also have applied for $2.9 million from the expected BP oil spill penalty money, to further expand the reclamation, storage and irrigation system on the beach, which would keep much of the waste out of the sound.

Opponents Tuesday night were not moved.

Biologists at the meeting said that the effluent may meet state regulatory standards, but those standards had been significantly weakened in recent years. The treated water still contains significant amounts of fecal contaminants, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and excess nutrients.

Studies suggest that near the discharge pipe, which extends 400 feet into the sound, “dead zones” have appeared where oxygen is depleted, which will ultimately disrupt the sound’s ecosystem, said Barbara Albrecht, director of the Panhandle Watershed Alliance.

Spraying reclaimed wastewater for irrigation on beach roadways and lawns is not appropriate and will eventually leach back into the sound and the Gulf, said Mike Robertson, a concerned citizen who lives in Gulf Breeze.

He advocated piping the effluent to Navarre, which is in the midst of moving its treatment plant off the barrier island. Then, a boardwalk and beach area could be extended east from the Quietwater area, making a tourist attraction.

The meeting also showed how little faith some people have in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The Thursday meeting was called because the treatment plant’s five-year permit is up for renewal. Opponents had asked DEP to hold a public meeting so people could ask questions in an open forum.

DEP will take written and oral questions Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 17, at its district office in Pensacola.

“They won’t give you any answers, though,” said Linda Young, director of the Florida Clean Water Network.

The agency has said the treatment plant meets all state requirements, and regulators are expected to approve the permit renewal later this month.