When Susan Monroe purchased in 2015 McIntosh Fish Camp, a fishing camp with tent, mobile home and RV camping located at 5379 Ave H in McIntosh, the previous owners told her the camp had an upgraded septic system. Soon after, she learned the truth: The septic tank is not permitted by Marion County, leaks consistently, is too small for the camp and drains foul-smelling gunk into a ditch that runs directly into Orange Lake.
Monroe first asked the Marion County Department of Health for help resolving the problems with the septic system. To date, she has received little help.
Monroe’s septic tank troubles are not unique. With an estimated 2.6 million septic systems in Florida, leaking systems pollute nearby waterways with nitrogen and phosphorus, which can contribute to toxic algae blooms, degrade water quality and negatively affect flora and fauna.
From Oct. 1, 2018, to Sept. 30, 2019, the Florida Department of Health received nearly 3,800 complaint investigations regarding sewage issues, at an average of almost 11 a day, said DOH spokesman Alberto Moscoso. Sewage that has spilled or leaked onto the ground surface is the most common complaint the Florida Department of Health receives.
Dan Dooley, environmental health director for Marion County, said the Marion County Department of Health received 63 calls in the past six months about leaking septic systems. The county has the third highest number of septic systems in the state.
When Monroe purchased the camp, the previous owners told her the mobile homes and RVs hook up to an older septic tank, and a newer tank installed in 2012 collects the sewage from Monroe’s house. They told her the new tank, an above-ground mound septic system, could handle the capacity of the house and the rest of the camp if need be.
About six months after she purchased the camp, she noticed a horrendous smell coming from the back of the property. Maintenance workers dug up a pipe that would sometimes spew sewage into a ditch that flowed into Orange Lake. John Mills, owner of Mills Septic Tank Service Inc, reran the line to the newer tank, but that did not solve the problem.
Since the reroute neither stopped the leak nor increased the system’s capacity to handle the sewage generated by the camp, Monroe was forced to downsize from six RV and seven mobile home spots to one RV and three mobile home spots. Even so, sewage still leaks into the ditch along the property. Monroe and her father, Charlie Gates, also noticed the mound where the newer septic tank is buried leaks treated water into a storm sewer, which also flows into Orange Lake.
Dooley said if inspectors find sewage on the ground from a failed septic system, the county health department will then serve the owners with a legal notice directing them to pump the tank. Pumping usually solves the immediate problem, but the owners must then apply for a repair permit within two days of pumping.
When Monroe called Environmental Health Specialist Hank Schwall in 2017 to inspect her septic tank system, she showed him the ditch containing the leaked gunk. He said he was unsure of what it was and gave her the name of a lab that could test it; however, the lab Schwall recommended doesn’t test for biological agents.
Monroe said she received an email from Dooley saying an inspector had gone out to the property Sept. 25, 2019, and detected no sanitary nuisance. Monroe was not at the property at the time of this inspection, so she was unable to show the inspector where the gunk usually is.
Monroe said she’s certain the gunk in the ditch is not just putrid water because it contains brown solids floating in it that look like biological matter. If it looks like poop and smells like poop, then it’s probably poop, she said.
Dooley said Schwall doesn’t believe the leak is raw sewage. Regarding the tank being undersized, he said the Health Department would only intervene if the septic system no longer functioned. If Monroe believes the system is potentially leaking a contaminant, she should contact the Department of Environmental Protection, Dooley said.
Monroe said the Marion County Department of Health has not yet told her whether she can keep the septic tank in place, how many homes it can handle or what to do about the sewage-like gunk that drains into the ditch.
Gates attempted to secure a repair permit for McIntosh Fish Camp’s septic tank, but because the tank had not originally been permitted, the Marion County Department of Health refused to issue a repair permit.
“The Florida Department of Health has come out since I bought the place and done inspections, and every year they are satisfactory,” Monroe said.
But because the Florida Legislature repealed the septic inspection requirement in 2012, Marion County Department of Health is not obligated to check the camp’s system.
The health department in each county is responsible for the permitting and inspecting of septic systems, while the Florida Department of Environmental Protection sets standards for compliance, said Adrienne Cronebaugh, a legislative assistant to Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R- Indialantic. During the 2019 legislative session, Mayfield sponsored the Clean Waterways Act, a statewide initiative to address problems that are polluting Florida’s waters. This bill would have transferred all responsibility for regulating septic systems to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
During the debate over last year’s bill, Mayfield said that restoring and protecting Florida’s water quality is crucial because it is the state’s most valued economic and environmental asset. Currently, Mayfield is re-drafting the bill, Cronebaugh said.
While the bill might help eventually if it’s passed, for now, Monroe still doesn’t know what to do about her septic tank issues.
Monroe and Gates are worried not only about the health of Orange Lake but also about the health of their residents and neighbors. Monroe said one former resident who left the camp wrote her a letter saying he left because the smell from the ditch made him sick.
Gates said they really don’t know what to do.
“It’s a quagmire of a situation,” he said.
On Sept. 20, 2019, Monroe spoke with environmental consultants Kim Duffek and David Hammonds of the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee and filed a formal complaint, providing pictures of the foul-smelling gunk and the mound “weeping.”
“I don’t know why nobody is interested in looking at what’s going on here. I just want it right,” said Monroe. “I don’t want to be a contributor (to water pollution).”