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Leaky Septic Tanks Worsening Algae Blooms, Scientist Says

Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency earlier this month because of the blue-green algae blooms near Lake Okeechobee.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Leaking septic tanks may be causing prolonged algae blooms like the one currently killing fish and wildlife near Lake Okeechobee.

The recent outbreak of blue-green algae across Florida is also raising serious public health concerns. Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency earlier this month because of the blooms. According to the Florida Department of Health, there are more than 2.6 million septic tanks across the state, but less than one percent are regularly inspected to insure they do not leak.

Brian Lapointe, a marine ecosystem scientist at Florida Atlantic University, said the leaks themselves may not start algae blooms, but they do fuel them with more nutrients to continue growing.

“The primary sources of nutrient pollution that feed the algae blooms are fertilizer in the storm water runoff from agricultural operations and suburban lawns and human waste from leaky septic tanks,” said Lapointe.

In 2010 the state legislature passed a law ordering septic tanks to be inspected every five years. They repealed the law in 2012, and former Florida Senator Charlie Dean now thinks that may have been a bad idea.

“In my opinion, septic tanks are a major contributor [to the blooms],” Dean told the Tampa Bay Times. “If we repealed the wrong thing, then yes, it’s our fault.”

Environmentalist groups like the Everglades Foundation have said reservoirs could fix the issue of toxic discharge in Lake Okeechobee.  Lapointe, however, said this would only move the problem, not solve it.

“To solve the problem, we must store more water up north and treat it,” said Lapointe.

Lapointe said the only way to fix the problem is if state officials get on board to reduce the number of people using septic tanks, particularly older tanks that are prone to leaking.

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Dericka James is a WUSF/USF Zimmerman School digital news intern for summer 2018.