Says business is being affected by ailing conditions
By Chris Fish
BREVARD -- A local man, who is filing a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Health over the ailing conditions of the Indian River Lagoon, said that his business is suffering, due to the deaths of endangered species.
"My business is based on the species in the lagoon," said Tim Chastain, owner of Fin Expeditions in Cocoa Beach. "The conditions of the lagoon are unpredictable. How do I plan my business?"
Fin Expeditions is a kayak adventure tour in Cocoa Beach that allows kayakers to experience the lagoon and its wildlife, first-hand.
However, Mr. Chastain argues that his business is being affected by the deregulation of septic tanks along the lagoon.
For more than a year, hundreds of manatees, pelicans and dolphins in the lagoon have died, washing to the shores, along the Banana River and the Indian River Lagoon, and leaving experts searching for an answer.
A lawsuit being filed by attorneys Lesley Blackner of Palm Beach and Christopher Byrd of Orlando said that the Florida Department of Health is in Violation of Section 9 of the U.S. Endangered Species Act in connection with the Department's "regulation, permitting and inspection of on-site sewage treatment and disposal systems, located with the Indian River Lagoon Drainage Basin."
"On behalf of the Florida Manatee, the Atlantic Green Turtle, the Atlantic Salt Marsh Snake and Tim Chastain, the undersigned write to request that immediate action be taken by the Florida Department of Health to remedy continuous, ongoing violations of Section 9 of the federal Endangered Species Act, with respect to manatees, green turtles and marsh snakes in the Indian River Lagoon," a 60-day notice, for the intent to sue, reads.
The lawsuit argues that chemicals, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, seep from septic systems located within lagoon drainage basins, which then enter the groundwater and is continually transported to the surface water of the lagoon.
This results in excessive nutrient enrichment of the lagoon, which causes water quality degradation, sea grass destruction, harmful algae blooms and harm to and destruction of a myriad of species that rely on the lagoon for survival, the suit reads.
Tom Belanger, professor of Environmental Sciences at the Florida Institute of Technology, said that he isn't entirely convinced that septic tanks are the cause for the ailing conditions of the lagoon.
"There is no consensus of the role of septic tanks in polluting the lagoon," he said. "My research shows that normal, properly sited and properly functioning septic tanks are generally not the problem. Failing systems, due to inadequate maintenance are a different story."
Mr. Belanger said that some researchers, however, do believe that septic tanks are the main problem.
"I believe that septic tanks may be a contributing factor at certain locations, but, overall, they are not the 'smoking gun' that many people indicate," he said. "Fertilizer runoff and leaching and internal loading from muck sediments are undoubtedly significant factors, as well."
Overall, Mr. Belanger said that he found the lawsuit to be premature.
"Suing the Health Department, on behalf of manatees, turtles, etc., for granting septic tank permits is premature because we do not have conclusive cause and effect data," he said. "If you're going to do that, you should sue the state DEP for not having strict enough model fertilizer ordinances for local governments, or sue each local government for not establishing strict ordinances."
Sheri Hutchinson, press secretary for the Florida Department of Health, said that the matter has been turned over to the Department's legal team.
"The Florida Department of Health has referred this matter to the Department's legal office for analysis and handling," she said. "The Department has been an active partner in discussions, regarding the Indian River Lagoon and has taken all necessary steps to protect the public health."
Mr. Chastain said that this lawsuit is a call for action.
"Something has to change," he said. "It's real simple. This case is an advocate for endangered species and the economy, based around these species."