Skip to main content

As Wildlife Dies, Outrage Mounts Over Florida Slime

Right now, in the prime-time of summer fishing, surfing, and swimming season, health officials in one of the prettiest places in southeast Florida are warning people not to touch the water because it poses a dangerous health risk.

A massive toxic algae outbreak along the Atlantic coast, north of Palm Beach, is turning the Indian River Lagoon and the St. Lucie Rivers sci-fi green. This is one of the most biologically productive parts of South Florida, and one of the most popular for water sports.

It’s also the same place where hundreds of manatees, birds, fish and dolphins have been washing up dead since last winter and spring. A New York Times article today dealt with many of these same issues. Thousands of fed-up local residents are taking to the streets in protest. On man carried a sign which said it all:

“No One Wants Sewer Front Property.”

As this crisis unfolds, what is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doing? Fighting us in federal court!

Algae outbreak at St. Lucie River, August 2013. (Dick Miller)The algae outbreak at St. Lucie River
on August 1, 2013. (Dick Miller)

The EPA is trying to wiggle out of a binding legal agreement (consent decree) it made in 2009 with Earthjustice and our clients to limit the sewage, manure, and fertilizer pollution that sparks the algae outbreaks. We are now challenging the EPA’s attempt to alter the consent decree in the Northern District of Florida.

The green slime covers miles of riverfront property in the coastal communities of Stuart, Hobe Sound, Port Salerno, and Jensen Beach. An algae outbreak here several years ago caused waterfront property values to drop—permanently—by a half million dollars.

“The sickening situation has some people so angry that they are calling for politicians to be voted out of office,” read a story in the Stuart News.

Local resident Benjamin D'Avanzo told the paper:

Our politicians take an oath into office and it should be apparent by the mess right here that they are not representing us.

Giant slugs of this filthy water, filled with excess nitrogen and phosphorus from industrial-scale sugar, vegetable and cattle operations, are being released from Florida’s inland “liquid heart”—Lake Okeechobee. Regional water managers say recent rains have made the lake too high and they need to let some of the water out. So, out it goes – through the St. Lucie River to the Atlantic, and down the Caloosahatchee River west into the Gulf of Mexico, carrying toxic pollution to the coasts.

Leon Abood, a real estate agent in Stuart, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:

It's as bad for the economy as it is for the environment. There is no end in sight … We have had it.

A local surfer angry about the environmental crisis organized a Facebook page and put together a protest in just a week. Thousands of people showed up on Aug. 4 and crowded a public park in Stuart, saying they are tired of the government coddling polluters and selling out the public.

Algae outbreak in Florida. (Evan Miller)Toxic algae has fouled southeast Florida’s waters. (Evan Miller)

One pair dressed as medics and carried an inflatable dolphin in a stretcher to memorialize the hundreds of dead dolphins. Others carried signs showing stacks of manatee carcasses. Several protesters said they have gotten nasty skin conditions and health effects from the pollution, and that the toxic water has made their pets sick.

One man arrived dressed as a piece of, um, sewage.

It’s been five years since we sued over the government’s inaction on setting limits on this pollution. Our clients are the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. John’s Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club. Back then, we were hopeful when the EPA settled the suit by agreeing to enforce the Clean Water Act in Florida.

Now, we are disappointed to see the EPA asking a judge to modify the consent decree so that fewer waters are protected and big polluters can keep dumping sewage, manure and fertilizer into our public waters, sparking the algae outbreaks like the one sliming the St Lucie and Indian Rivers.

It’s as if the Department of Bridges has decided not to have any standards for a huge class of bridges and now those bridges are collapsing. The slime covering the rivers on the southeast coast are like those collapsing bridges. It is clear-cut proof that the Clean Water Act is not being enforced. Here it is, the prime of summer, and people can’t fish or play in the waters they love without endangering their health. That’s wrong.

The angry residents plan another rally this Sunday along the beachfront, where the pollution coming out of the rivers is spreading into the Atlantic.

Photos of the outbreak, and ongoing news coverage, are available at the Images of Toxic Algae Outbreaks in Florida photo slideshow, TCPalm's Our Indian River Lagoon and "Save the St. Lucie River and Martin County Wildlife" Facebook page. And for more information and news about Florida’s algae outbreaks—their causes and solutions—visit floridawatercoalition.org.

Algae outbreak at St. Lucie River, August 2013. (Dick Miller)

The algae outbreak at St. Lucie River on August 1, 2013. (Dick Miller)

 

 

About the Earthjustice Blog

unEARTHED is a forum for the voices and stories of the people behind Earthjustice's work. The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the opinion or position of Earthjustice or its board, clients, or funders. Learn more about Earthjustice.