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Salt water leaks from SeaWorld Orlando into aquifer

Orlando Sentinel

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January 12, 2008

Salt water from some of the giant pools and related plumbing at SeaWorld Orlando and neighboring Discovery Cove has been leaking into the aquifer, beneath those theme parks, in some cases for seven years or more, according to state environmental records.

The salt-contaminated groundwater is not particularly toxic, but some samples drawn from monitoring wells at the two parks are nearly as salty as seawater. Those tests, disclosed midday Friday by the Orlando Sentinel on its Web site, also produced samples with the acidity of orange juice or even vinegar.

In the most recent tests on file with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, 24 of 42 wells produced water exceeding federal drinking-water standards for chloride, sodium, sulfates or other contaminants. Seven of those wells had more than 10 times as much sodium and chloride as federal standards allow.

With one exception, there is no indication the slow-moving contamination has spread beyond the theme parks' borders.

There also appears to be little risk that the salty groundwater, which is limited to the "surficial," or near-surface, aquifer, will wind up in someone's drinking water, normally drawn from the state's deep aquifer. And there is no evidence the saltwater has seeped yet into nearby freshwater ponds or the canals that drain the area before flowing into Shingle Creek, one of the headwaters of the Everglades.
Still, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, while expressing confidence that no significant harm will occur to humans or the environment, wants to make sure it is correct. The agency has asked SeaWorld to install dozens of additional groundwater-monitoring wells, to sample nearby ponds weekly for contamination and to pump contaminated water out of the ground before it can spread.

Government regulations forbid companies from degrading any groundwater, whether deep in the earth or near the surface, to levels below drinking-water standards, because that water could one day be needed for human consumption.

"The department considers any contamination to Florida's groundwater or surface waters a serious matter," DEP spokesman Jeff Prather said Friday.

At Discovery Cove -- a high-end, resort-style theme park that opened in the summer of 2000 -- the leaks appear to have come from the coral-reef lagoon and two saltwater holding ponds. One of the ponds has been closed, repairs have been made to the lagoon, and park officials think the situation is improving. But the park has also installed wells to extract salty water from the ground before it reaches a nearby canal or another pond, and a company official said a long-term solution would take several years.

Kelly Bernish, SeaWorld's director of environmental health and safety, said Friday that any threat to the environment should diminish as the slow-moving groundwater spreads and becomes more diluted, and as SeaWorld's efforts to solve the problem continue.

"We have a long history of caring for the environment, and certainly we took immediate action as soon as we saw there was any issue at hand," she said.

The leaks inside SeaWorld involved specific, isolated incidents that were quickly fixed and are now under control, Bernish said. Those leaks occurred in the Shamu Stadium filtration-plant system, which is in an employee-only area at the south end of the park, and in a system of dolphin-isolation pools that is mostly in an employee-only area at the park's north end.

But the state DEP is not so sure the situation inside SeaWorld is under control.

Agency officials suggested in December internal memos that they suspect multiple leaks have occurred in the Shamu Stadium filtration system, and that both those and the leaks in the dolphin-isolation pools are neither contained nor well-defined yet.

Bernish was surprised when asked about those state assessments.

"As for any concerns that have been communicated to us in our quarterly or more frequent meetings, we have always reached consensus and carried out those strategies and directives cooperatively," she said.

Bernish said the leaks posed little threat to the environment. She characterized the problems as regulatory in nature, involving technical standards.

"We have absolutely no indication this would affect any animal or plant life in the region," she said. "It hasn't on our property. And as you know, the grounds at both of our parks are very lush and landscaped, and we haven't had any indications of any problems."

Detected in 2000

The saltwater problem was detected in early 2000, when SeaWorld -- operated by Busch Entertainment Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of beer maker Anheuser-Busch Cos. -- was preparing to open Discovery Cove. After crews filled the coral-reef lagoon, they discovered the giant pool was losing about an inch of salt water a day.

Since then, leaks have been detected and more wells have been installed, and contaminated groundwater has been found in several locations at both Discovery Cove and SeaWorld. The only off-site contamination suspected at this time is beneath an Orange County fire station on land next to Discovery Cove. Tests have not yet been conducted there, but groundwater drawn from wells just across the property line was tainted with salt.

Most of the monitoring efforts have been under way for several years. In July, DEP Central District Director Vivian F. Garfein, in a letter to Bernish, said it was time for "more aggressive efforts for addressing these saltwater releases and their associated impacts on the groundwater and surface-water resources." That included a call to intensify some of the monitoring.

In a written statement, Prather said Friday that Garfein called for heightened efforts because both Discovery Cove and SeaWorld continued to report saltwater releases. Prather said long-term plans for handling the problem cannot be determined until the extent of the contamination is fully understood.

"The facilities will need to continue to assess the extent of contamination in the groundwater and develop a strategy to either remediate the contamination or ensure no further migration from its existing location," he said.

Forty-two active groundwater-monitoring wells now pepper the SeaWorld and Discovery Cove properties. The acidity of the salty water, as measured by the 0-14 pH scale, has ranged as low as 5.53 in the dolphin-isolation pools, 3.61 in Discovery Cove and 3.64 in the Shamu Stadium filtration system -- all below the regulatory limits of 6.5 to 8.5 pH.

But the main contaminants are sodium and chloride, two ions that combine to make table salt, and sulfate, another salt common to seawater.

Contamination levels in many of the Discovery Cove wells have fallen steadily through several testing periods, particularly those near the east and west holding ponds, according to DEP documents. Likewise, most of the recent samples taken near SeaWorld's dolphin-isolation pools were better than those taken in some preliminary tests last spring.

But several wells near Discovery Cove's coral-reef lagoon got worse last year.

The problems with Discovery Cove's holding ponds "are decreasing and, in fact, we have asked the DEP to abandon some of those wells, because it is looking so good," Bernish said. "The coral-reef water is moving very slowly, and we're continuing to monitor and remediate there."

Contaminated samples have come from several wells along the property line between Discovery Cove and the Orange County fire station, which is on land donated to the county by SeaWorld.

DEP officials expect to find contaminated water under the county-owned site as well, and have requested that wells be installed there. County official have not yet consented, they said.

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