Trial begins today in a case where, for the first time in the 32-year history of the US Environmental Protection Agency, EPA has joined a lawsuit to defend water polluters. The EPA is defending polluters against a legal challenge to the dumping of polluted water into Lake Okeechobee in south Florida. Billions of gallons of polluted water are dumped into the lake from sugar plantations and nearby towns each year. Lake Okeechobee is the source of drinking water for thousands of people all across south Florida including residents of towns along the southern rim of the lake and West Palm Beach. Lake Okeechobee is the nation's second largest freshwater lake wholly within the United States.
For years, South Florida Water Management District pumps have dumped tons of agricultural wastewater loaded with fertilizers from sugar plantations, as well as polluted urban run-off water, into the lake. Conservationists, represented by Earthjustice attorney David Guest, argue that the South Florida Water Management District must comply with the Clean Water Act and get permits that limit the amount of pollutants dumped into the lake. Under the Clean Water Act, pollution discharges are only allowed if the polluter has obtained a federal permit, which, in this case, the district has not done.
"Lake Okeechobee is a drinking water supply and ecological treasure. These pumping operations are ruining the water supply and threatening to kill the lake with pollution," said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. "The South Florida Water Management District is violating the Clean Water Act."
Fertilizer contamination often leads to algae blooms in the south part of the lake. These algae blooms can be toxic and suck oxygen from water that is needed by the lake's fish to survive. The dumping of this wastewater also causes some drinking water supplies to develop a yellow color and bad taste during and after the pumping operations. Drinking water supplies for residents of the town of South Bay, located on the shores of Lake Okeechobee, have registered extremely high levels of carcinogenic compounds known as trihalomethanes, or THMs, which are a byproduct of treating water with chlorine. THMs may cause cancer or reproductive problems.
Earthjustice is representing Florida Wildlife Federation in the federal lawsuit, which is expected to last up to three weeks.
Manley Fuller, president of Florida Wildlife Federation said, "Lake Okeechobee is dying as a result of fertilizer pollution and urban run-off. There are other ways to deal with agriculture waste water but Florida only has one Lake Okeechobee."
United States Sugar Corporation, one of the biggest sugar corporations in the United States has intervened in the case on the side of the South Florida Water Management District. In a sharp break with past practice, the Environmental Protection Agency is arguing that the pollution pumping operations do not violate the Clean Water Act.
David Guest, Earthjustice, (850) 681-0031
Jared Saylor, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500
Manley Fuller, Florida Wildlife Federation, (850) 656-7113
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