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Jacksonville To Phase Out Septic Tanks In Environmentally Sensitive Areas

Peter Haden

The city of Jacksonville has made a $30 million deal with JEA to speed up the phase-out of septic tanks. Environmentalists are cheering the five-year plan.

JEA’s wastewater facility in Mandarin serves 70,000 customers, and soon, even more homes will be connected to this system instead of septic. JEA and the city will be footing the bill for homeowners to ditch the tanks.

Officials argue fewer septic tanks mean less waste-related pollutants leaching into the St. Johns River and other water. But not everyone agrees the tanks are as big of a problem.

“I’m not quite sure that everyone making decisions is really looking at the true identity of sources,” says the Florida Onsite Wastewater Association’s Roxane Groover. Her group’s members are septic tank workers. She says some of the money JEA and the city are investing could be used to upgrade tanks instead of flushing them.

“We have to look at a marriage of all the technologies out there,” she says. Filters could be added to older tanks, for example.

But Florida Atlantic University Professor Brian Lapointe says septic tanks are a main culprit of water pollution. In 2014, the state found 135 Duval County water bodies were polluted with fecal bacteria.

“There’s been a lot of research on septic tanks over the past 10 or 20 years that has really shown how much more of a problem this is than we used to think,” he says.

Lapointe is working with the Florida Chamber of Commerce on a new education campaign aimed at eliminating septic tanks statewide. He says decades of research and recent fish kills in the Indian River Lagoon prove they’re not environmentally friendly.

He says septic tanks are the second leading cause of nitrogen pollution in Florida’s surface waters. The first? Fertilizer used on farms and lawns.

That’s why Earthjustice attorney David Guest says environmentalists shouldn’t focus too much energy on septic tanks when agriculture retains such powerful influence on policymakers.

“In agriculture, you’ve had much more intensive agricultural cultivation with dramatically larger amounts of fertilizer,  chemical fertilizer,” he says.

For now, Jacksonville aims to get rid of septic tanks in its most vulnerable areas over five years. The plan will take off this October.

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.