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State Rep. Will Robinson of Bradenton files his first bill. It’s about red tide

Red tide heartbreak at Robinson Preserve

Intensive cleanup underway at Robinson Preserve to clean up fish kill from red tide.
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Intensive cleanup underway at Robinson Preserve to clean up fish kill from red tide.

New state Rep. Will Robinson is wasting no time after his November victory, filing a bill that indirectly would address one of the biggest problems in his district: red tide.

Robinson, R-Bradenton, is attempting to revive a 2010 law — with what he described as improvements — that was repealed in 2012 regarding mandatory septic tank inspections. Leaking and malfunctioning septic tanks have long been cited as a contributing factor to red tide, as well as the blue-green algae blooms in Lake Okeechobee.

Those blue-green algae blooms can eventually can wind their way into the Gulf of Mexico. The blue-green algae dies in saltwater, but the nutrients of the dead bloom are known to feed the Karenia brevis organism responsible for red tide.

To what extent septic tanks are contributing to the overall problem remains up for debate, but there’s enough scientific research in place that warrants attention, and it’s something that the Legislature can act upon now, Robinson said.

Dr. Vince Lovko talks about how Mote tests water for Karenia brevis, or the red tide phytoplankton.

The latest estimate of the number of septic tanks used in Florida is 2.6 million, which has been the estimate for years. The uncertainty is one of the things House Bill 85 addresses.

The bill, which will be considered when Legislature goes into session in March, would require the Florida Department of Health to update its current database to determine the number of septic tanks still being used in a county-by-county report to the Legislature. It also would require the department to adopt rules and implement programs, standards and procedures, and to develop and administer an inspection program.

Septic tank provided photo 1.JPG
Provided photo

As the bill is currently written, mandatory inspections would take place every five years. Homeowners would be notified of the inspection, which would have to be completed within 60 days of notice. Homeowners would be required to pay for the inspections and any remedies as determined by the inspection.

Lawmakers, including those who supported it in 2010, backed away from the law in 2012, largely due to the expense to homeowners in the midst of the Great Recession. But the costs would average about $500 or less every five years. That still would be substantially less than the amount of monthly sewer bills over the same time period for homeowners tied into municipality waste water lines.

The repealed version of the 2010 law gave authority to local municipalities to develop their own septic tank ordinances, which most did not outside of standard codes and regulations regarding permitting.

“We do not have any locally prescriptive ordinances governing septic tanks,” Manatee County spokesman Nick Azzara said. Inspections, he said, still fall under the Department of Health, but are only done under specific conditions, according to the department’s website.

Bradenton and Palmetto also do not govern inspections, however Palmetto requires any homeowner with a septic tank wishing to be annexed into the city, to tie into the city’s waste water system, particularly on Snead Island where septic tanks are still prevalent.

While there have been some rumblings over that ordinance, Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said the law’s intention was always to encourage homeowners along the water to end the use of septic tanks.

Both cities also have an extensive infrastructure program in place to replace aging sewer lines to prevent leakage as well as the multiple waste water line breaks that have occurred in recent years. And both cities are implementing new underground water storage, as well as stormwater technologies that will reduce reservoir runoff into the Manatee River.

Robinson acknowledged the bill isn’t a cure-all for red tide, but it’s a good start.

Red tide in Manatee County persists and scientists are warning that it may get worse into the future.

“There is nothing I heard more during the campaign than the red tide that has devastated our area and coastal communities,” Robinson said. “I even heard it as I was leaving our election night party from a supporter who said, ‘Will, do something. Big or small, do something.’ There’s no secret why I wanted this issue to be my first bill because it’s the one issue I heard the most.”

It may be an uphill battle. The Florida House overwhelmingly passed one component of what is in Robinson’s bill in the last session, which was ensuring that home sellers fully disclose everything a home buyer needed to know about septic tanks. But even that didn’t get much traction in the Florida Senate.

“I look at a bill much like an opening argument in a trial,” Robinson said, who is a local attorney. “We’ll get further input, certainly from the Senate side, which I’m working on now. This is one piece of the puzzle, but it’s a piece that can work. I think this bill can be effective and I’m hopeful it will garner some support.”

Robinson said he’s working with the Department of Health and the Florida Realtors, which supported the 2012 repeal, “to make sure the language in the bill is tight enough so inspection fees aren’t out of control. I analogize this the same way as buying a new air conditioning unit in that if you maintain it, it will last longer and will have less issues. It’s the same thing. If the homeowners are maintaining it and you get that notification, it’s a reminder to get it pumped out and get it working properly.”

Robinson said the bill will be a work in progress, “But I’ve got to do something. It’s important to take some kind of step. I’ve talked to dozens of fishermen and employees that have been hurt and I want to do something. And then we saw what happened at Robinson Preserve and it’s personal to me given my family’s history of preservation with that park.”

Hundreds of dead mullet lined the sandy floor of Robinson Preserve’s inner northern tributaries fed by Tampa Bay Tuesday morning.

If successful, the bill would take effect by Oct. 1, 2019, but gives the Department of Health until Jan. 1, 2021, to identify the number of septic tank systems, update the database and create a statewide map. By July 1, 2022, the mandatory five-year inspection process would begin with a county-by-county implementation plan phased over 10 years.

Inspection priorities will be mandated to those areas of the state that are within a springshed protection area. Enforcement procedures also would need to be developed for those homeowners who do not comply, as well as for licensed contractors who fail to report inspection results to the state.

While the original law was in effect, one report was filed with the state in 2011 that indicated out of the estimated 2.6 million septic tanks in Florida, fewer than 1 percent were being inspected and serviced by a licensed maintenance professional. In most cases, the report states, “They are only inspected after failure.”

Urban Affairs Reporter Mark Young began his career in 1996 and has been covering the cities of Bradenton and Palmetto since 2014. He has won more than a dozen awards over the years including the coveted Lucy Morgan Award for In-Depth Reporting from the Florida Press Club and beat reporting from the Society for Professional Journalists to name a few. His reporting experience is as diverse as the communities he covers.

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