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The federal government wants Florida water utilities to scrub sewage much cleaner before injecting it several thousand feet under the earth for disposal.
But that proposal, designed to lessen the danger in wastewater escaping from a deep geological container, drew criticism Thursday from South Florida water utilities and environmentalists at a West Palm Beach public hearing.
Utility officials lauded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for not moving to halt the practice of pumping sewage from treatment plants into rock cavities 3,000 feet underground.
"We think the EPA has taken the right first step," said William Brant, chief of the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department.
But he and others in his industry, among 90 people at the afternoon hearing at the Sheraton West Palm Beach Hotel, described the higher standards as overkill. They said the measures would greatly inflate the cost for cities and counties to provide public tap water and increase water and sewer bills paid by Floridians.
Environmentalists attacked the proposal for trying to find a way around a 20-year-old federal prohibition of the migration of injection-well sewage into subterranean drinking-water reservoirs.
"The proposal ... will throw away a bright line of prevention of contamination and substitute it with a process that's full of holes and not in the best interest of the state," said Suzie Ruhl, president of the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation, or LEAF.
Injection wells have received treated sewage for more than 20 years in Florida, one of the few places in the nation with geologic features that permit such deep disposal. Utilities have embraced the wells as a cheap way to make sewage go away. They say the method is kinder to the environment than piping wastewater into the Atlantic Ocean or other surface waters.
In Florida, about 400 million gallons a day of municipal wastewater is sent down such wells into a formation called "the boulder zone" about 2,800 feet below the lowermost underground source of drinking water.
But the EPA has evidence that, at about 20 of Florida's 98 injection wells, some of that sewage is migrating upward. The wells are in Miami-Dade, which has eight wells out of commission because of the issue, and in northern Palm Beach and Pinellas counties.
When injection-well migration occurs, federal law says the wells should be shut down. But utilities say there's no public health threat. "It may be migration, but it's not pollution," said Fred Rapach, the department's policy coordinator. "Water quality is the focus here, not fluid movement."
The EPA is considering having plants clean and disinfect their injection-well wastewater to near drinking-water standards.
Environmentalists see that as a weakening of anti-pollution rules.