Fla. seeks OK for disputed water program

State says process safe

federal waiver required


MIAMI - In a bid to head off drinking-water shortages, Florida is nearing approval of a disputed plan that would allow billions of gallons of untreated, partly contaminated water to be injected deep into the ground in what would serve as subterranean water banks.

Aides to Gov. Jeb Bush say the approach, which would involve capturing rainwater before it flows to the sea, would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in treatment costs, and that extensive precautions would be taken to avoid any danger to human health.

With the aquifers that are Florida's main source of fresh water already at dangerously low levels, state officials say that the severity of the problem demands fresh solutions.

State officials say that bacteria in the tainted water could not survive underground, or at least that the contamination would not spread through ground water. But opponents say studies are far from conclusive and the plan, which goes far beyond anything attempted in the United States poses far too great a danger, particularly for private wells.

To proceed with the plan, state officials have asked the Environmental Protection Agency for a waiver of the federal rules that, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, require that any water pumped into the ground be treated first to meet drinking-water standards. The governor included such an appeal in a January letter to his brother, President Bush.

The EPA has not said whether it would approve the request.

In his letter, Gov. Bush noted that Florida's plan would require that the stored water be treated before it is made available for human use and he asked that the EPA demonstrate "a willingness to abandon conventional processes as long as the environmental results are achieved.

"EPA's insistence that naturally occurring surface water should be treated to `drinking water standards prior to being placed underground,'" the letter continued, "only to be retreated again to the same standard when pumped out of the ground for use, is nonsensical."

Among the issues in dispute are whether the untreated water might contaminate private wells that do not rely on water treatment, and whether the high-pressure injection process might disturb the underground geology in a way that could affect the purity of existing aquifers.

"This is something that really has not been studied yet with respect to the injection of untreated surface water," said John Vecchioli, who recently retired as the district director in Florida of the U.S. Geological Service. "I think the state could be opening the door to a lot of problems."

To a limited extent, other states, including Arizona and Utah, have begun to use the underground water-banking procedure, which is known as aquifer storage and recovery. But they have followed the federal guidelines and pumped only treated water into the ground.

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