A decade of delays in setting limits on sewage, manure and fertilizer contamination in Florida waters ended today with a ruling today by the federal court in Tallahassee. The court ruled that enforceable new limits on this pollution cannot be delayed any longer and, in fact, must go into effect in three weeks.
Warning sign on Caloosahatchee River in June 2011.
(Mike Dove) View photo slideshow.
“Florida political and environmental leaders have been struggling for 20 years to come up with a way to stop huge green toxic algae outbreaks that plague Florida lakes and rivers,” said Earthjustice Attorney David Guest. “Today we finally turned the corner.”
The ruling was issued by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided 14 years ago that limits on the pollutants that feed slime outbreaks on lakes and streams were necessary. Three years ago, EPA and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection agreed that specific pollution limits must be quickly implemented - but efforts to establish limits were met by a massive campaign by polluting industries to stop or delay the new rules.
Sewage, manure and fertilizer spur toxic algae outbreaks that cover waterways with green slime and cause rashes, breathing problems, stomach disorders, and worse. Health authorities have had to shut down drinking water plants, beaches and swimming areas. Toxic algae can kill fish, livestock and pets.
The judge agreed that the EPA’s approach—which is like a speed limit sign that gives everyone fair warning of the law—is a good, practical and necessary. It replaces a 35-year-old Florida rule that required studies when algae outbreaks take place but did nothing to prevent them.
The court did find two technical defects in EPA’s rule, and ordered them to be fixed by May.
“Floridians are disgusted at seeing more and more lakes and rivers turn pea green and smell like sewage.” Guest said. “Today we are going to start preventing that from happening anymore.”
The public wants the slime outbreaks to stop. Several environmental groups issued a grassroots call to action in recent weeks, and, so far, more than 17,000 people have written to the White House supporting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits to combat the green slime which breaks out on our waterways.
After years of seeing toxic algae on Florida tourist beaches like Sanibel Island and at fishing destinations like the St. Johns River, Earthjustice filed a Clean Water Act federal lawsuit in 2008 in the Northern District of Florida on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. John’s Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club. In 2009, the EPA set numeric limits for the phosphorus and nitrogen that comes from sewage, fertilizer and manure in the water.
Earthjustice is now challenging the ineffective standards to control this pollution proposed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Like the old rules, the proposed rules only require studies when an algae outbreak takes place. No corrective action can be required until the studies are completed, a process that takes five to ten years.
David Guest, Earthjustice, (850) 681-0031, ext. 103.
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.