Investigations continue into solving contamination problems in Escambia Slough

Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
September 16, 2020

Aerial view of the Escambia slough

Fernandina Beach City Manager Dale Martin provided the Fernandina Beach City Commissioners (FBCC) with information from the Health Department on its investigations into potential septic system failures leading to release of contaminants into the Escambia Slough.  This matter first came to the FBCC’s attention in August. Martin quoted from an email he received just prior to the September 15, 2020 FBCC meeting from Michael Godwin, Environmental Health Manager for Baker/Nassau Counties.

Godwin reported that the Health Department had identified 4 residential properties with some type of “sanitary nuisance.”  He wrote, “Our next step will be to send the property owners a Notice of Violation (NOV) for a sanitary nuisance at their property.  They will then need to apply for a septic repair permit to install a new septic system or they will need to tie into the City’s pubic sewer, if available.  If public utilities are availablle, they will be required to tie into the sewer system instead of installing a new onsite septic system.  Our letter will remind the property owners to contact the City for the possibility of sewer availability prior to any septic permit being issued.”  Godwin requested the City to provide him with sewer availability information that could be included in the NOV letters.

City Attorney Tammi Bach quoted parts of Florida law dealing with the issue of forcing connection to city sewer.  She said that “availability” is determined by the distance of the City sewer line to the property in violation.  She said that after consultation with Utilities Department Director John Mandrick, it has been determined that the properties in question are farther away from an existing sewer line.  Should the City decide to run a line to these properties, by law the property owners would have 365 days to connect, unless other Health Department regulations override this law.  If the City would decide not to extend a sewer line to service these properties, public sewer would be deemed “unavailable” and the Health Department would then be able to permit a new septic system for the properties.

Commissioner Chip Ross asked for a cost estimate to extend the sewer line to serve these properties.

City Manager Dale Martin said that he and John Mandrick have begun discussing the problem and need to determine whether “sanitary nuisance” equates to “failing septic system.”  Once they pin down locations, they will be able to recommend a course of action to pursue.

In response to a question from Mayor John Miller, Mandrick said that the City relies on the County Health Department to assess septic fields.  Factors they look at are drain fields and leach fields as well as the state of vegetation.  “It could literally mean standing sewer water that has not gone through the leaching process,” he said.  “When the drain field doesn’t function, sewage overflows into water that drains into streams and storm sewers.”

Mandrick will investigate further and return to the FBCC with cost estimates, probably in the neighborhood of $10,000-15,000.

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