Thursday, June 21, 2007

Study Reveals Significant Compliance Problems

If you watched our new documentary, Revenge of the River, then you know that we have been working on an analysis of Clean Water Act permit compliance for the Lower St. Johns River. Well, the study, Lower St. Johns River Compliance Report, is finally complete and the findings are rather troubling.

In 1972, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, a law that marked a new direction in the management of pollution discharged to our waterways. As authorized by the Clean Water Act, the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program was created to regulate point sources (e.g. a pipe) that discharge pollutants into the waters of the United States. In Florida, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been authorized to administer the NPDES permit program. Thus, DEP has the primary legal authority to implement, oversee, and enforce the permit process.

St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Public Trust Environmental Law Institute of Florida, Inc. initiated the study to analyze the DEP NPDES permit data specific to the St. Johns River. The groups established an 20-month time frame, from January 1, 2005 to August 31, 2006, as the study period.

The purpose of the Lower St. Johns River Compliance Report is to: (1) evaluate the effectiveness of facilities in complying with the limits and conditions of their NPDES permits, and (2) educate the public and provide insight into how DEP oversees the NPDES program and fulfills its responsibility of protecting our waterways. The results clearly indicate that problems exist with the compliance of NPDES permits and the administration and execution of the NPDES program. This analysis serves to document those shortcomings and provide recommendations to address those problems.

Key Findings:

  • The permit review documented 252 violations of NPDES permit limits or conditions and 46 Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs) for a total of 298 total violations during the 20-month study period. SSOs totaled almost 266,000 gallons of material, with the majority relating to sewage.
  • Nitrogen-related violations were the most frequent type of violation with 73 incidences. Other Water Quality issues were a close second with 65 occurrences. Bacteria violations numbered 44, and Oxygen related violations totaled 26. There were 21 violations involving heavy metals, followed by 12 violations involving toxic chemicals. There were 11 flow violations. When combined with the 46 SSO violations, flow and SSOs combine to create a substantial problem.
  • JEA’s Julington Creek Water Reclamation Facility (WRF or WWTF) led all facilities in the number of violations with 37. The Julington Creek wastewater treatment facility was followed by Paradise Point WWTF with 27 violations. Hiawatha and Hart Point WWTF each had 22 permit violations.
  • JEA facilities, the majority of which are wastewater treatment facilities, violated their permits a total of 64 times. JEA facilities accounted for over 90% of the SSO violations, 42 of the 46 events.
  • The review noted that DEP designated 27 facilities as “Out-of-Compliance” and documented 36 various “compliance” related incidences. Eighteen facilities were designated as “Significantly-Out-of-Compliance”.
  • A review of the data indicates that some facilities were allowed to operate for long periods of time with an out-of-compliance designation. In some cases, the time period was over a year. For example, the DEP declared East Putman County Road WWTP as “significantly-out-of-compliance” in March 2005. A year later, the facility was again designated as “significantly-out-of-compliance”. The Palatka WWTF was listed as “out-of-compliance” in July of 2005. A return inspection almost a year later, in June 2006, resulted in the plant being declared “significantly-out-of-compliance”.

Currently, the Lower St. Johns River is designated as “impaired” or polluted because of too much nutrient (nitrogen) pollution, and most of the creeks and tributaries in Duval County have high levels of fecal coliform bacteria. In other words, our river and creeks are already polluted. These permit violations are violations of the law--illegally contributing additional pollution to our waterways causing further degradation.

If we are going to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to restore the health of the St. Johns, then compliance and enforcement of our environmental laws must be a priority, as well. The facilities that are violating the terms of their permits must do a better job of complying with the law. DEP, the state agency charged with protecting the river, must do a better job of enforcing the laws and encouraging compliance. We deserve better, and so does our river.

For more information, visit our website – You can download the Lower St. Johns River Compliance Report and view the original documents from the DEP files that verify the violations.

Monday, June 11, 2007

River of Late.......

The following is from the latest river observations of Ben Williams, former Riverkeeper Board member, avid fisherman, and owner of Fisherman's Dock seafood market.

Ospreys - Though over the last few decades they have become pleasantly ubiquitous, they can still serve as barometers of things. In that vein, it's worth noting that of late we've noticed at least a couple of nests where the parents have managed to rear 3 chicks to fledge. I'd venture that this is a result of the current conditions in the river. Both because of the great schools of mullet, and because of the large number of distressed freshwater fish, easy picking abound. I should also add that, because of the good crab season we're having, there are more traps around, and therefore, more discarded bait to be scavenged each morning. Less chance of a young osprey not getting a full belly and, therefore, less need for his less strong sibling to go even hungrier.

And speaking of traps and discarded bait, gators love it too. We've noted gators working away from the bank at sunrise in Lake George, precisely when you'd usually expect to see them going in the other direction, and they're working out towards the trap lines.......think they've learned something?

And it is that salt water that is of special note. Marker 18, on the north head of the bar at Browns landing, which is about a dozen miles south of the 17 Bridge at Palatka, had barnacles on it as of Saturday. Not little tiny pinhead ones either, but rather barnacles of BB size or larger. NEVER seen them so far south. Asked around. Found a few fishermen older than I to ask and their response was the same. In the old days, 30 years ago, even the docks in the Toccoi area were barnacle free. And it was big news when, a decade ago, barnacles were growing within sight of Palatka, way beyond that now.

And with those barnacles, riding too on the salt, have come the fish. Tarpon, 3 I know of hooked by one bass fisherman on Friday last. And snook, and porpoise south of Green Cove, and jellyfish to the Shands and beyond, and the crabs are carrying sponge south of town, which pushes the crabbers farther south to escape those they can not sell legally. And here at the house, Fruit Cove, a few hundred yards south of Julington Creek, the fish feeder's school of bream has dwindled. Driven from the constant source of food by the salt, I assume. And I think it a good assumption for, and trust me I know what I am looking at, as I look off the dock I see few freshwater fish. Where a couple of months ago there would be groups of small bass and sundry panfish species wandering the shallows, today, none.

But it's not as if there is no life there, for the saltwater species have replaced them. Mullet, and schools of small croakers, and spots, and pinfish, and all sorts of minnows. And where we would see shad, we're now seeing porgies. And a few hours ago I noted vast numbers of tiny marine shrimp, the result of the spring spawn, moving along the bank. And their general direction of movement, as is to be expected this time of year, is south.

And the eel grass is in full retreat here near Julington. Since January, it's transitioned from lush to sparse, with gone on the way. It's headed where it was a decade ago, white sand and sight casting reds off the dock................... But to the south, Lake George and the river proper, there the grass is coming back with a vengeance. The bars in the river, bars which for the last 4 or 5 years have been just that, sand bars, are now sprouting grass. And in Lake George, how beautiful it will get is anyone's guess. We were there yesterday. Along the east shore, there are places where it extends hundreds of yards from the bank, farther than we can ever remember seeing it. And the west shore, according to reports as I've not been over there lately myself, has recovered nicely from the lashing of the hurricanes. The grass, which had been rooted up in mass by the waves of those storms, is well on it's way to lush also.

And more good news. With the exception of a report or two from Crescent Lake, there has been no sign of our ugly green friend. Of course, it's only in the last couple of weeks that the water has hit the mid 80s steady, which may change things, but then the salt will have some effect?

And the mullet.............! If there have been more mullet in the river in recent years, we missed it. It's hard to explain this, but generally while we do see some significant size variation in the mullet populating the river, the mullet in the river will be more of the larger and fewer of the smaller. Of course, the river harbors mostly black mullet and not the silvers that tend to run smaller. But what we're seeing is a population structure with a far greater number of small, as in what fishermen call "finger mullet", than usual. And the numbers are huge. Doctors Lake is literally seething with them. How this unusually large population of vegetarians will effect things, who can tell.

And then there is the bottom in the shallows. When we have grass, the grass tends to impede the passage of sediments down the river. Here at the house, and in many places, a muck layer will develop behind and amongst the grass. The bottom not covered by grass will be dark. Now though, even in the shallows, sand is much more visible. And where did the muck go? And where did the nutrients bound up in that muck go? And is this good? And is this a natural cycle that allows the river to purge to some extent? Questions that prove we need science and scientist because we fishmongers can only guess. I guess it's a good and natural thing, guess being the operative word.