THE CLEAN WATER ACT
"The Clean Water Act (CWA) establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants [including sewage discharges] into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters.” (EPA.gov).
Traditionally, the states have had regulatory jurisdiction over pollution discharged into groundwater, but that was changed by a 2020 decision from the United States Supreme Court (County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund, 140 S. Ct. 1462 (2020)). The CWA now also regulates the discharge of sewage through the “functional equivalent of a point source”, such as pollution which is discharged to groundwater and then travels to surface waters via tunnels, fissures, and conduits – precisely the make-up of limestone geology which is typical of the Keys.
FOLKS' CLEAN WATER ACT LAWSUIT
After years of discussions and negotiations with the City of Marathon, which went nowhere, with Marathon’s coastal water quality continuing to deteriorate and to travel hydrologically to the rest of the Keys, FOLKS filed a Clean Water Act lawsuit against the City of Marathon in January 2022. FOLKS asserts that Marathon is in violation of the CWA by discharging partially treated sewage pollution through shallow wells into our porous limestone, which allows the pollution to migrate almost immediately to the surface waters of the United States.
FOLKS and well-known scientists have collected evidence for the lawsuit showing that at least three of Marathon’s five sewage treatment plants have pollution upwellings in the nearby surface waters which, according to scientists, most likely come from the shallow sewage wells and are causing damage to both the seagrass meadows and coral reefs which support our fisheries and marine animals.
Studies also show that shrimp, crabs and small prey fish are loaded with pharmaceuticals from sewage discharges, as are some higher-trophic predator fish. Human waste contains hormones, endocrine disrupters, anti-biotics as well as illegal drugs and many other pharmaceuticals. Sewage treatment plants do not eliminate them before discharging through shallow wells, which allow migration to the surface waters.
Studies also show that the immune systems of marine mammals, such as turtles and dolphins, are harmed by their exposure to sewage discharge. (WLRN Article, October 14, 2021)
Andy Newman / AP
Most large disposers of partially treated sewage in the Keys (Key West, Key Largo, Islamorada, and Cudjoe Regional for the Lower Keys) all use deep wells to dispose of their sewage discharges. Marathon is the largest remaining sewage treatment plant that uses shallow wells, though there are others, too.
There are grant monies available for conversion to a deep well.
FOLKS hopes this lawsuit will result in a deep well for Marathon. And that two other large sewage disposers – Key West Resort Utilities in Stock Island and Florida Keys Aqueduct Authority’s Big Coppitt treatment plant – will follow suit without the need for further litigation.
Shallow Wells vs. Deep Wells – How it Matters
Let’s begin with a visual to see how very differently a shallow well, drilled to just 90-120 feet, compares to a deep well, drilled to 3,000 feet. You can see the deep injection well is encased in steel and cement and discharges its wastewater deep below two confining layers of rock into the boulder zone.
Further, the limestone geology that makes up the Florida Keys is full of tunnels, conduits, and channels. Donald M. Maynard, a Florida-licensed geologist and a licensed engineer, stated, shallow sewage well injection is like pouring water through a colander.
Dye tests performed at the shallow wells of Cudjoe Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant show almost immediate movement of the injected dye to nearby surface waters, and were instrumental in getting Cudjoe Regional WWTP to settle litigation and dig a deep well for its sewage disposal.
Monroe County Sanitary Wastewater Master Plan, 2000
Studies show damage to marine life
See the STUDIES page for links to and explanations of additional studies performed. Since this lawsuit was initiated, The Bonefish and Tarpon Trust (BTT) has released a major three-year study showing pharmaceuticals present in both bonefish as well as the small prey they and other fish consume (shrimp, crabs, etc.). As the BTT president and CEO, Jim McDuffie, stated upon release of the study, "Pharmaceutical contamination was detected at levels high enough to have biological effects on the fish, thus posing a risk or a threat to our fishery." And, that "The source of this contamination is human waste and a wastewater infrastructure that has been pressed beyond its technological capability and capacity." [BTT Study, February 2022]
In another important study from March 2022, Dr. Brian Lapointe, a Research Professor at Florida Atlantic University – Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, with extensive experience in wastewater impacts on local marine ecology, conducted studies near the shallow coastal waters near the Area 3 and Area 4 sewage plants in Marathon.
He found “extremely high” concentrations of sucralose in the water samples. Sucralose is an artificial sweetener, consumed by humans, and is a scientifically accepted indicator of the presence of human waste in the water.
“There is a serious concern that partially-treated wastewater from shallow injection wells at a nearby wastewater treatment facility are likely the source of these unusually high concentrations of sucralose. The extremely high concentrations of sucralose make it unlikely that this sucralose is coming from smaller scaled human wastewater inputs such as the few remaining septic tanks or cesspits in the vicinity,” noted Lapointe in his ‘Marathon Wastewater’ study published on the website of the non-profit organization Coast.
The Coast website also shows photographs of the sea bottom and macroalgal blooms that indicate heavy impact from human wastewater.