Reefs contaminated with
three-year federal study says human sewage has made its way to
the Florida Keys' fragile offshore coral reef and affected one
of the most pristine and popular dive spots.
Environmental Protection Agency scientist and marine ecologist
Bill Kruczynski presented the results Tuesday at the Water
Quality Steering Committee of the Florida Keys National Marine
Sanctuary. The study, which scientists still must review to test
the conclusions of its three authors, comes as Monroe County
governments agonize over how to replace cesspits and septic
tanks with a central sewer system by the state-mandated 2010
State officials gave stern warnings to Keys government leaders,
some of whom are fighting the mandate, that the deadline is firm
and fines will be imposed if requirements are not met.
"Human sewage has contaminated the groundwater underlying the
Florida reef tract," according to conclusions from the study. An
EPA press release issued Tuesday says "the detection of these
bacteria near shore suggests that land-based sources of sewage
pollution, like cesspits and septic systems, may be significant
study, conducted from 2003 to 2005, found common fecal indicator
bacteria, which include fecal coliform and enterococci, and
human viruses in corals and groundwater in the Upper Keys,
including Molasses Reef in Key Largo. Fecal bacteria, which are
not pathogens themselves, serve as indicators for other
disease-causing microbes found in sewage, EPA officials said.
Levels of fecal bacteria detected in surface waters declined
with distance from shore, but tended to be higher on the surface
of corals compared to surrounding water. Coral colonies
"accumulate viruses like flypaper," Kruczynski said. Genetic
material from intestinal viruses, which can cause disease and
are spread through infected human feces and urine, were found in
groundwater six miles offshore, EPA officials said.
"Viruses were detected more frequently during rainfall in the
summer months, when they were most likely to be found in
groundwater," the press release says. "This suggests that
sewage-contaminated groundwater is reaching the offshore reefs
of the Florida Keys."
officials also called on Keys municipalities to install central
wastewater management systems and other treatment systems to
"restore and maintain water quality in the area."
Keys reefs have experienced a 37 percent decline in living coral
cover since 1996 and an increase in coral bleaching and coral
diseases. The reefs are affected by overuse, pollution and
global warming, scientists have said.
Scott Zimmerman, executive director of the Florida Keys
Commercial Fishermen's Association, questions whether there is a
link between the sewage making its way to the reef and damage to
the coral and the introduction of a herpeslike virus in spiny
lobster that has caused a reduction in the commercial catch of
"The lobster virus could be related to this occurrence, deep
welling of wastewater and flushing it off shore," Zimmerman
said. "The more variety of bacteria, the worse off it is for
larvae populations of our commercially harvested animals.
"We're ruining our nurseries. I don't see any short-term fix for
what is one of the worst problems in the Florida Keys."