Soil samples tested for arsenic on Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve came back “inconclusive.” The soil tests were prompted after high levels of arsenic were recently found in the groundwater there. Lee County’s Conservation 20/20 Committee, which owns and manages the land, met Wednesday, Jan. 31 to talk about the results and what comes next.
This past August, groundwater tests on the preserve in Saint James City showed arsenic levels were 30 times higher than federal standards allow. Since then, the Conservation 20/20 Committee had soil samples tested to help figure out where the arsenic is coming from. But arsenic levels were low in the soil, so that did not help narrow down the culprit.
An outside hired contractor, Kimley-Horn, says the arsenic could be showing up in the groundwater for three reasons: it could be naturally occurring, or “an unidentified source of contamination,” or it could be the fact the Pine Island Wastewater Treatment Plant sprayed its wastewater there for years.
Conservation 20/20 estimates it’s spending a total of $68,000 on wells they’ve recently drilled, new wells they plan to drill, groundwater tests and soil tests. Rae Ann Wessel with the Sanibel Captiva Conservation Foundation is on the committee. She says Lee County Utilities, which manages the wastewater plant, should be paying for this because she says it’s clearly the cause of it, based on past elevated levels of arsenic and pH the plant reported from the wastewater before it was sprayed out onto the preserve.
But Lee Utilities has told the Conservation 20/20 manager that it’s not their responsibility since an outside report from 2014 concludes the arsenic came from “cattle grazing operations.”
“We don’t have any sampling that’s coming out of the cattle. We do have sampling that shows what's coming out of the plant that was sprayed on the land and we do show violations of the plant discharge as a spray field,” says Wessel.
Committee head Cathy Olson of Lee Parks and Recreation tells Wessel:
“What I’m trying to figure out is how to clean it up as best we can and how to limit the spread, if it's possible, and where it came from. So that at the end of the day is the biggest concern. Which county pocket it comes from is less of a concern."
But Wessel says she’s worried about depleting the program’s funds on this.
“We can bleed this program dry by not having program-related expenses pulled out of this program and that's my real concern. And water quality is a concern and it is a county concern," says Wessel. "And ‘cause of the relationship here, my question would be: is there any alternative for how that plant is operating, or are they still spraying?”
Olson says she'll invite someone from Lee Utilities to come speak at their February 8 meeting to answer questions about paying for the testing, and to find out if wastewater is still being sprayed on the preserve.
She says she’ll also invite the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, after public commenter Donna Sutton asks:
“If the Department of Environmental Protection will be holding the Pine Island arsenic contamination to some of the same standards as like Dunbar, the sludge contamination?"
State environmental officials have been hands-on in trying to handle the arsenic-laden lime sludge that the City of Fort Myers dumped in the predominantly black Dunbar neighborhood for years. The arsenic numbers coming out of Dunbar are much lower than those coming out of Pine Island Flatwoods Preserve.