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Arsenic on Pine Island?

March 14, 2018
Pine Island Eagle

To the editor:

We all know that arsenic is a deadly poison, but did you know that evidence points to the fact that Lee County sprayed arsenic on Pine Island? Here's what we know:

All the sewage that Lee County Utilities collects from Matlacha and the places it serves on Pine Island is piped to a large Waste Water Treatment Facility (WWTF) operated by Lee County Utilities (LCU). It is located just off Stringfellow Road in St. James City. There the raw sewage is pumped into two 263,000-gallon tanks where it is treated primarily through aeration. There's a lot of other stuff out at the WWTF, including a lined 10 million-gallon reuse storage pond, but this story is about what next happens to the treated sewage, known as "effluent."

Once the effluent passes tests primarily for turbidity (clarity) and chlorine levels, one of five things happens to it: 1) It is sprayed through nozzles onto the spray field on the WWTF site or 2) it is sprayed on a spray field that is part of the Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve or 3) it is pumped and deposited into the injection well that is owned and operated by Greater Pine Island Water Association or 4) it is sprayed onto a site at Island Acres Estates or 5) it is sprayed on a site at a tree farm.

This story focuses on the spray field on the Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve. This preserve is about a 1,000 acres of land purchased with our tax dollars by the Lee County 20/20 Conservation Fund. It straddles both sides of Stringfellow Road about two miles north of the American Legion. Flatwoods is home to such critters as gopher tortoises and eagles and it has a footpath we can enjoy. It's a pretty nice place except maybe the area where the sewage effluent spray field is located at the northwest end of Flatwoods that area is fenced in.

LCU had several monitoring wells on the Flatwoods spray field. These wells were tested quarterly for numerous chemicals, including arsenic, and bacteria to ensure that the groundwater was not being contaminated by the spraying. Also, once per year LCU directly tested the effluent that was being discharged on the spray field for these harmful chemicals. With the exception of acidic discharges, everything was testing OK until 2012.

The EPA and the World Health Organization set the "safe" standard for arsenic in water at 10 micrograms/liter (ug/l) or roughly 10 parts per billion. A second standard is set at 100 ug/l which basically is when alarm bells should start ringing and there's a contamination problem that needs to be addressed. Prior to 2012 the effluent tests for arsenic in the effluent were generally so low as to be undectable, but then in 2012 the arsenic in the effluent spiked to 12.3 ug/l. At the same time the quarterly tests of arsenic levels in monitoring well #5 (MW-5) in Flatwoods started to rise. From 17.3 ug/l in May 2012 it rose to 137 ug/l a year later and fluctuated between and 14.9 and 147 ug/l through the end of 2015.

Despite the LCU Memorandum of Agreement with Parks & Recreation (which oversees the 20/20 Conservation Lands Program) clearly stating that spraying should have ceased when the effluent spray had the high level of arsenic in 2012, no action was taken by LCU, 20/20 nor the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The effluent spraying continued.

In 2013 the level of arsenic in the effluent dropped to 6.95 ug/l and then dropped to negligible levels. But after spraying arsenic-laden effluent for over a year, the damage had clearly been done.

Finally, in 2016, LCU took action. They closed the water quality monitoring wells on Flatwoods. No tests, no problems. Just keep flushing folks, it's all good. Well obviously, not really. In 2017 Lee Conservation 20/20 used our conservation fund to open new monitoring wells on Flatwoods. In 2017 the new well near the abandoned, highly contaminated MW-5 has recorded arsenic levels of 35.9, 40.7, 300, 229, and 130 ug/l. These levels are so high that DEP finally reacted, writing to 20/20 on Feb. 6, 2018. that, "Since groundwater monitoring at the site indicates the presence of arsenic exceeding the applicable groundwater cleanup target level, the next prudent step would be to conduct a site assessment " Not exactly an ultimatum, but a lot better than nothing.

It is outrageous that Lee County Utilities, and the County Commissioners who oversee them, not only ignored the arsenic contamination on our Island, but actively tried to cover it up by closing the monitoring wells. And it's equally outrageous that Lee County is using our conservation land to spray sewage effluent. In 2011 LCU signed a Memorandum of Agreement with Parks & Recreation, the purpose of which "is to restore the Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve to a natural system and provide LCU sufficient time to locate an alternate spray field" LCU has done nothing except deny their sewage effluent caused the arsenic contamination and pay a consultant who blamed the poisoning on cows.

LCU needs to clean up the poisonous mess on Flatwoods and then get off our island's 20/20 Conservation Land.

Finally, I wish I could tell the folks at Island Acres Estates that the levels of arsenic in their community is safe, but I can't. LCU shut their monitoring wells at Island Acres Estates too and has not tested there in over two years.

Scott Wilkinson




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