Safe sources of drinking water: Disguised in full

For most urban Floridians, water appears in faucets and disappears down drains as effortlessly as elevator music. It would be rash, however, to take for granted safe and affordable drinking water, the single commodity that dissolves class, race and religion.

The New York Times recently quoted an Iraqi about the good service provided by soldiers digging wells: “When this well is done, each time somebody takes a drink of water they will say the Americans did something good.”

”Protecting underground sources of drinking water” is a primary purpose of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Congress did something very good for Americans by passing this law in 1974, and Florida is doing something very bad in violating it.

Aquifers are protected by standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency. A key requirement of the federal law is that injected fluid that violates primary drinking-water standards must not move from zones where it is confined. That’s good. Cleaning up pollution on the surface, where you can see it, is costly enough: There is no combing out the pollution of a ruined aquifer.

The EPA was convinced by technical experts—within and outside the agency—that underground caverns thousands of feet down would confine scarcely treated municipal wastewater. What began as an experiment turned into a de facto standard. It didn’t take long for the experts to be proved wrong. They claimed the stuff would remain confined for hundreds of years, but today in some locations, what was injected under pressure is moving toward future supplies of drinking water and percolating, albeit slowly, into the public imagination.

Every day in Florida, more than a billion gallons of scarcely treated municipal wastewater are rammed in pipes drilled through drinking-water aquifers to deep zones where it is supposedly “controlled.” In some places, broken promises mean that effluent is now leaking upward toward future sources of drinking water. That is illegal. Illegal with a capital I.

In 1983, the federal government “delegated” the authority for supervising and enforcing the Safe Drinking Water Act to the state of Florida. That’s D, as in a failing grade.

Who wins when aquifers lose? Elected officials, who service growth to a T. Big engineering companies, with an E, who win building infrastructure for growth and win again, repairing what they did under contract.

The winners include agency officials and elected officials tacking back and forth like sailboats in the breeze. Who loses? Taxpayers with quaint habits like balancing bank accounts and living within their means; counting natural resources as principal not to be spent.

The losers can’t afford to buy their way out of pollution. They live it.

Over time, the losers include the languid sibilance of Florida’s fresh-water springs and restoring the Everglades, curdled from the smooth milk of conscience to a tangle of financial transactions.

Today in Florida, oceanic volumes of effluent are leaking from places elected officials claimed would not leak in 300 years. The state of Florida won’t say where it is moving to or who will pay, and you won’t find anyone to talk about it without one or two of their lawyers in the room.

Who wins by putting wastewater injection only a clay-pigeon toss from drinking water? Gamblers whose only risk is deciding how long to count cards at the taxpayers’ table before someone summons the pit bulls.

In Florida, when it comes to gaming aquifers, the pit bulls are on the same side as the cheats.

Better than any other example of what happens behind the high walls of government, exploiting Florida’s aquifers shows how accountability is a frictionless exercise: Responsibility is everywhere and nowhere and explains why so many people experience government as someone else’s magic trick. Natural resources are destroyed through no design of theirs, quality of life diminished through no expressed preference, and people get sick with no identifiable culprit, shucks.

Last week, the Sierra Club served notice of its intent to sue federal, state and local governments over the mismanagement of Florida’s injection “control” well program.

The Sierra Club cited Miami-Dade County, where the state recently acquiesced to the county’s 20-year plan to massively expand its facility that includes wells the state has permitted though they have leaked for decades enormous quantities of effluent. At some indeterminate point in the future, the mess will be cleaned up. The state calls it a good deal.

”Costly” is the kindest word to describe the illegal violation of Florida’s aquifers. The better word is “insane.”

Today, it is also illegal. But in Florida nothing is forever. Tallahassee is lobbying the Bush White House to redefine pollution so that what is illegal under the Safe Drinking Water Act will be, in the future, legal. If not for the upcoming presidential election in which you have the chance to vote, what is happening to Florida’s aquifers would be disguised in full.

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