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MIAMI (Reuters) - The sun-drenched beaches of southeast Florida lure tourists from all over the world. But few of them may realize that a torrent of human waste is dumped silently every day into the seemingly pristine waters offshore.
Every day, three densely populated counties pump into the Atlantic Ocean a total of at least 300 million gallons of partially treated urban waste water, too polluted even for watering lawns.
The dumping takes place in a state heavily dependent on tourism and the patronage of international celebrities and the wealthy who maintain homes there.
The practice dates back to the 1940s and has gone little noticed amid rampant development and haphazard coastal-protection policies. Only recently has it started to gain attention.
Intensive red tides -- blankets of potentially toxic algae -- and frequent beach closings due to unsafe bacteria levels have already diminished the allure of Florida's world-famous shoreline.
Bowing to pressure from environmental groups, the Florida Senate recently passed a bill backed by Gov. Charlie Crist that would eventually shut down six pipes that carry waste water into the Atlantic from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. The state House of Representatives is expected to clear the bill later this month.
But Janet Llewellyn, head of water resource management at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, acknowledges that it will likely take 16 more years before the pipes are totally closed, at an estimated cost of up to $3 billion.
"The whole idea of it just kind of makes me sick," said Ed Tedtmann, a scuba diver and Sierra Club activist who said he no longer swims off his home in Boynton Beach, Florida, because of what he sees as the man-made environmental disaster looming offshore.
The six so-called sewage "outfall" pipes stretch from one to 3.5 miles offshore. The dumping occurs out of sight, at depths of about 100 feet.
State officials have argued for years that the waste dissipates at sea and causes little or no near-shore pollution because it is quickly carried north in the Gulfstream current.
"The human health risks are low because of the dilution involved, and the outfall discharges are disinfected," said Llewellyn.
Marine scientists, however, say the minimally treated effluent is potentially harmful to humans, especially small children, the elderly and anyone with a weakened immune system. They also argue that it is hurting coastal ecosystems since it contains high levels of nitrogen, ammonia and other contaminants associated with the algae blooms that periodically suffocate coral reefs.
"The state has been reluctant to admit that these discharges are affecting the reefs," said Peter Barile, a scientist at Marine Research and Consulting of Melbourne, Florida. "We've had very, very strong evidence but, amazingly, a reluctance by the state to admit this," he said.
That is because waste-water treatment tends to be costly, Barile said, especially when it comes to upgrading plants like the aging structures connected to the Florida outfalls.
"This is one of these 800 pound gorillas in public planning and public works in South Florida," Barile said.
David Guest, a Tallahassee-based lawyer with Earthjustice, a non-profit group dedicated to enforcing and strengthening environmental laws, said far more has to be done. "This is an edge of a bigger Florida problem and a bigger national problem," Guest said. "Pollution from sewage is contaminating waters all over, everywhere."
To be sure, waste-water sewage outfall pipes are not unique to Florida. Southern California, which also relies on them, is among areas where officials have been accused of treating the ocean like a giant toilet.
Environmental advocates have been highlighting the issue as they also urge regulators nationwide to find ways to slash the amount of raw sewage that belches out of older municipal sewer systems, often designed to overflow during heavy rainfalls.
Old sewage disposal systems and leaky septic tanks should be banned from areas where they are known to leach into ground water, environmentalists say. And there should be no underground waste-water injection wells in places like Miami, where Barile said they are polluting drinking water aquifers and sending pollutants into the near-shore reef system.
According to Nancy Stoner, director of the Clean Water Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council, there are also no effective measures in place anywhere across the country to remove pharmaceutical waste from sewage systems and pollutants such as endocrine disrupters, which can drive hormone systems haywire. In some areas, the waste has been linked to abnormally developed fish that have both male and female characteristics, she said.
"The thing with pharmaceuticals and endocrine disrupters and so forth is that people don't really know what the long-term effects are. I find that scary," said Stoner.
"There is a crying need for greater investment in municipal waste-water systems," said Ed Hopkins, Washington-based director of the Sierra Club's environmental quality program.
"For years we have not been keeping up with the cost of maintaining these systems and that is something that as a society we need to do a better job of. We are literally hundreds of billions of dollars behind in taking care of our waste-water treatment systems."
Editing by Michael Christie; Editing by Frank McGurty