Wal-Mart Supercenter Construction Could Potentially Contaminate Drinking Water
Photo Courtesy of Cindy Butler
On February 28, 2006 Wal-Mart submitted its Environmental Resource Permit that would open the door to construction of its controversial Superstore in the City of Alachua. The property in question sits atop an underwater cave and many people are concerned about the potential impact this would have on the Floridan Aquifer.
Stretching from the Mill Creek Sink behind Sonny’s BBQ and extending all the way to Camp Kaluqua is an underwater river, a delicate channel of fresh water that is part of the Floridan Aquifer, and part of the water we drink.
Cindy Butler, cave diver and trained cave guide is worried about the impact such construction could have on the cave as well as the effect of runoff from the parking lot into ground water. She pointed out that this particular site provides a direct conduit into the aquifer.
“There is a fissure that connects to the sinkhole,” Butler said. Not long ago she assisted aboveground with an electronic beacon while cave divers swam below her with a transmitter. “It’s only 50 feet from the surface – probably closer.”
A year and half ago she contacted the city to express her concerns and was told to leave it to the experts. Last year she tried to contact Wal-Mart but never heard back.
“I’m not against Wal-Mart. I just don’t want to see it there,” Butler said.
John Dinges, Director of Resource Management for Suwannee River Water Management said that anyone wishing to build a business is required to apply for the Environmental Resource Permit as authorized by State Statute 373.4. The permit will be reviewed within 30 days and if there are errors, the builder will have 90 days to resubmit the corrected permit. Once deemed complete Suwannee River Water Management has 90 days to either accept or deny the permit.
Once the Permit is accepted, construction could begin, providing the action is not challenged by a concerned third party, such as a neighbor or citizens.
Dinges said that two main criteria must be met. First storm water must be properly managed. Secondly wetlands and surface water (swamps and ponds) have to be avoided, or impact minimized. Geotechnical studies must be conducted by the developer. In areas such as Alachua where sinkholes are commonplace, design strategies need to be utilized.
“Wide, shallow storm water basins will be used to minimize risk of sinkhole formation,” Dinges said. Should sinkholes form, the applicant would be asked to repair the sinkhole. Sinkhole formation is not an uncommon event in Florida. In fact, in January as construction began at the nearby Wal-Mart Distribution Center, five sinkholes opened that had to be filled.
Due to Florida’s Karst topography the ground below us is not as solid as it may seem, but is instead a Swiss cheese latticework through which the aquifer flows. Innumerable swallows, swallets and sinkholes dot the surface, many of which drain directly into the aquifer.
Across the state, beginning around Orlando and curving up into the Panhandle is a persistent topographical feature known as the Cody Escarpment. On one side lies the Northern Highlands, 100 to 200 feet above mean sea level with a confined aquifer. On the other is the Gulf Coastal Lowlands characterized by elevations from sea level to about 100 feet above mean sea level - with an unconfined aquifer. The City of Alachua sits atop the transitional edge and is therefore highly vulnerable to contamination.
Wes Skiles, filmmaker, explorer and founder of Karst Environmental Services is another concerned citizen. His company conducted a dye study that proved conclusively the interconnectivity of Mill Creek Sink and the Florida Aquifer. Dye released into the sink was traced as it coursed along a seven-mile conduit underground to the Santa Fe River where it resurfaced in Hornsby Creek. More importantly, the dye was detected within the Public water supply.
“We connected the dots,” Skiles said. “This is not rocket science.”
He said that large developments with their huge roofs and parking lots create many impervious surfaces. Water becomes storm water that has to go somewhere, directed by pipes and outlets into retention ponds. The natural filtration system of the earth is bypassed.
“People don’t realize how much oil and heavy metal from brake pads and complex compounds end up on the pavement and leaches into the water and gets ingested into our bodies,” Skiles said.
The Wal-Mart Superstore plans to have many gas pumps and a full service station.
“I’d prefer not to see it there,” Skiles admitted. “It’s a vulnerable location.”
Skiles, who is not against development, recognizes the benefits of progress. However, he would hope that Wal-Mart would act as a good citizen and do what they would normally do to protect the water in this delicate system.
He believes in honest and direct discussions between the water department, the city, the county and the citizens of Alachua to better understand the implications of these actions.
“Each Representative needs to know that they are accountable for the ultimate fate of the water they drink, and the water their children drink and the water their children’s children drink.”
Another thing to take into consideration: just northwest of Alachua, not far from the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter is 100+ acres of farmland owned by Suwannee River Water Management – and future site of the new well field, a source of drinking water.