Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

New Rules Threaten Sewer Bills; JEA Must Spend $150 Million to Comply with Tougher Water Pollution Standards

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

New Rules Threaten Sewer Bills; JEA Must Spend $150 Million to Comply with Tougher Water Pollution Standards

Article excerpt


New federal water pollution standards being proposed for the St. Johns River could increase sewer rates by as much as 30 percent, according to JEA. The city-owned utility would be required to spend an estimated $150 million over the next few years to bring its 18 wastewater treatment plants into compliance.

The new standards, resulting from litigation over pollution levels, are expected to reduce nutrient levels that caused large stretches of the waterway to be blanketed with a green film of algae-like bacteria last summer.

The Environmental Protection Agency this month announced the new standards, which would require a 60 percent reduction in nutrients in the saltwater section of the river that flows through Jacksonville and a 40 percent drop in the freshwater section, south of Black Creek by Green Cove Springs. The federal standards will go into effect in January and replace less stringent state limits that were briefly in effect before being set aside by the EPA in October.

Nutrients come from such sources such as sewage and lawn fertilizer, and they are among the worst pollutants in rivers, environmentalists say.

The state limits were overturned as a result of a lawsuit filed against the EPA by the St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Tallahassee-based Clean Water Network of Florida. The lawsuit alleged that the state limits would not maintain proper levels of dissolved oxygen in the river. Dissolved oxygen is vital for maintaining aquatic plant and animal life.

The EPA made its decision to change the standards while the case is proceeding.

Jim Dickenson, JEA's chief executive officer, said the state levels were adequate and that the change was unnecessary.

"Spending money on a technicality . . . without knowing what it is going to get you is very disturbing," Dickenson said, adding that JEA remains committed to protecting the river's health.

JEA customers will eventually shoulder the cost of needed upgrades through higher sewer charges, he said.

In addition, the city could be forced to spend more money to meet tougher discharge requirements because of its storm water systems that flow into the river. The impact of that is unknown, said Susie Wiles, Mayor John Peyton's spokeswoman.

Local builders had been worried that a court-ordered moratorium on new water discharge permits before Jan. 23 would halt home construction in the region. But the federal judge hearing the lawsuit last week clarified the ruling to prevent such an interruption.

Neil Aikenhead, who represents builders and developers on a committee that has been working to implement the state standards, warned members in an e-mail last month that environmental groups were exploiting a "legal loophole" to force the tougher standards and that it "would be a crime against the environment" should they go into effect.

"I would note that this crime would be perpetrated by the St. Johns Riverkeeper, who while claiming to be working for the river, is in fact knowingly doing the exact opposite," he wrote.

Aikenhead, in an interview this week, softened his stance and called the wording of his e-mail "unfortunate" and that he meant to say it would be a "crying shame" if the committee's efforts were to go to waste. The committee comprises government agencies, environmental groups and businesses, along the river.

But environmental groups contend the stricter standards simply uphold state water quality standards. …

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