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Ending Toxic Algae In Florida

Toxic algae outbreak on southwest Florida's Caloosahatchee River in June and July 2011. Photo taken at Franklin Lock.

Toxic algae outbreak on southwest Florida's Caloosahatchee River in June and July 2011. Photo taken at Franklin Lock. Pollution caused by inadequately treated sewage, manure and fertilizer is creating toxic algae outbreaks.

Photo courtesy of Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation

The water didn’t always look like this.

Throughout history, Florida has been known for its clear, sandy-bottomed rivers, streams, lakes, springs, bays and beaches—places of beauty and revitalization that draw visitors from around the globe.

Today, many of the postcard-perfect blue waters that make Florida a tourist mecca are coming up green and choked with nasty, toxic algae. It has happened in front of pricey waterfront mansions. It has happened in rural streams, where neighbors fish for food. And it has happened along famous beaches, where horrified tourists and residents watch as the waves toss up hundreds of dead fish.

The culprit behind this environmental and economic crisis? Pollution caused by inadequately treated sewage, manure and fertilizer.

This pollution is preventable. Now that we know more about how the nitrogen and phosphorus in sewage, manure and fertilizer tip Florida’s delicate ecological balance, we have a responsibility to do something about it.

We know that excess nitrogen and phosphorus spur these toxic algae outbreaks. And we know the way to make Florida’s waters clean again is to limit this pollution at its source.

For more than a decade, Earthjustice and our clients in Florida have been working to implement strong limits on the pollution that sparks toxic algae outbreaks.

The fact is, industrial polluters have been using public waters as their cheap, private sewers for years. Now, they are bringing considerable political and monetary forces to fight against clean water standards that the public overwhelmingly supports.

It is time for Florida to establish limits on the water pollution that threatens families’ health and drinking water. This pollution is poisoning the rivers, lakes and streams that supply the water to kitchen taps. Floridians deserve clean drinking water, not water polluted with sewage, fertilizer and manure runoff.

Health Impacts Of Toxic Algae

Toxic algae can cause respiratory problems, neurological damage, nausea, diarrhea, rashes, and even death. The toxic algae pollution has become so serious that the Florida Department of Health now hands out educational materials that ask people: “Have You Been Slimed?” Callers to the state’s Aquatic Toxins Hotline (1-888-232-8635) hear a recording which warns: “It is very important that pets, livestock and small children are kept out of water suspected of having a blue green algae bloom since there have been many reported cases of animals dying after drinking highly contaminated water.”

The Department of Health also recommends that people don’t water ski or jet ski over algae mats. Officials warn against using algae-laden water for cleaning or irrigation.

And in January of 2014, the Centers for Disease Control issued public health reports on human illness and animal deaths associated with algal outbreaks and recreational water–associated disease outbreaks.

Economic Impacts Of Algae Outbreaks

Florida’s economy is driven largely by real estate and tourism. Rivers of toxic algae put both of these sectors in jeopardy.

When algae outbreaks occur, workers at hotels, charter and commercial fishing boats, beachfront concessions, restaurants, bars, and waterfront rentals all pay the price.

Areas around Southwest Florida’s Sanibel Island tourist beaches have suffered noxious outbreaks of toxic green algae and red tide in recent years. The dirty outbreaks fouled drinking water supplies, killed fish, closed popular tourist beaches, caused rashes in those who swam in the waters and devastated the tourism-dependent economy.

The famous St. Johns River near Jacksonville was closed to fishermen in the summer of 2009 because of a disgusting toxic green slime outbreak that poisoned fish, making them unsafe to catch or eat.

During an outbreak on Southeast Florida’s St. Lucie River, waterfront property owners suffered half-billion dollar loss in property values.

Today, more than 2,000 miles of river and 600 square miles of lakes are seriously polluted by sewage, manure or fertilizer.

EPA Forced To Step In

Since 1998, Earthjustice has been using legal action to get the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to apply pressure on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to set limits on this toxic pollution.

In 2008, Earthjustice sued the EPA on behalf of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the St. John’s Riverkeeper, and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida to force measurable pollution limits. The EPA entered into a settlement agreement and established new water pollution limits. During the comment period, the agency received 22,000 comments, with 20,000 in support of the new standards.

Powerful interests who profit from free disposal of pollutants in public waterways are fighting new standards, and they have allies in Congress and in Tallahassee.

Earthjustice is committed to restoring clean water to Florida, no matter how long it takes because the current state of affairs is untenable and dangerous to human health.