Pollution-fueled algae blooms are fouling Florida's beaches, lakes, rivers, and springs more each year, threatening public health, closing swimming areas, and even shutting down a southwest Florida drinking water plant serving 30,000 people.
Today, five environmental groups filed a major lawsuit to compel the federal government to set new limits on the nutrient poisoning which triggers harmful algae blooms.
The public interest law firm Earthjustice is representing the Florida Wildlife Federation, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. John's Riverkeeper, and Sierra Club in the case, which will challenge a decade-long delay by the state and federal government in setting limits for so-called nutrient pollution.
Every time it rains, run-off from factory farms, fertilized landscapes, and agricultural operations pour fertilizer and animal waste residue into Florida's rivers and lakes. These contaminants nourish algae blooms and therefore are referred to as "nutrients."
"As the old saying goes, this stuff tends to flow downhill. Unfortunately, national treasures like the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico are being overloaded," said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. "Measurable standards are the first step in restoring the quality of our nation's rivers, lakes and oceans."
The lawsuit has nationwide implications. Currently, Florida and most other states have only vague limits regulating nutrient pollution. Today's legal action seeks a court order requiring that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency impose quantifiable -- and enforceable -- limits for those contaminates in Florida.
The EPA gave Florida a 2004 deadline to set limits for nutrient pollution, which the state disregarded. The EPA was then supposed to set limits itself, but failed to do so. EPA recently approved a plan that would have limits, at best, being "proposed" by 2011.
"Each time an extension is granted, it essentially guarantees these contaminants will continue to flow into our rivers, lakes, and oceans -- endangering our wildlife and threatening our economy," said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation.
Clearly, nutrient contamination is altering water bodies all over Florida. As Earthjustice notes in a letter it sent to the EPA:
"Potentially toxigenic cyanobacteria have been found statewide, including river and stream systems such as the St. Johns River in the Northeast Region, the Caloosahatchee River in the Southwest Region, and the Peace and Kissimmee Rivers in the Central Region. In the Southeast Region, toxin levels in the St. Lucie River and estuary during an algae bloom in 2005 were 300 times above suggested drinking water limits and 60 times above suggested recreational limits. Warning signs had to be posted by local health authorities warning visitors and residents not to come into contact with the water. Lake Okeechobee, which is categorized under state regulations as a drinking water source, is now subject to almost year-round blue-green algae blooms as a result of nutrient pollution."
Inland freshwater resources are also affected by pollution from agricultural runoff and other sources: half of the state's rivers and more than half of its lakes were found to have poor water quality in a 2006 report by the state Department of Environmental Protection. The problem is compounded when nutrient-poisoned waters are used as drinking water sources. Disinfectants such as chlorine and chloramine can react with the dissolved organic compounds, contaminating drinking water with mutagenic chemical byproducts.
"EPA has admitted that excessive levels of nitrogen and phosphorus are a direct cause of toxic blue-green algae blooms," Earthjustice wrote to the EPA. "Exposure to these blue-green algae toxins through ingestion, skin contact or inhalation can cause rashes, skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions, gastrointestinal upset, serious illness, and even death. Last month, a water treatment plant serving 30,000 Florida residents was shut down after a toxic blue-green algae bloom on the Caloosahatchee River threatened the plant's source water supply."
"This level of pollution is hard to believe in modern America," said Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club.
"We have drinking water plants being shut down because the water is poisoned with algae," added Andrew McElwaine of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. "It is time for the federal government and Florida to step up to the plate and enforce clean water standards for the public. Citizens shouldn't have to resort to lawsuits to get the government to make sure they have clean water, but unfortunately, that's what we have to do today."
The lawsuit was filed in federal court for the Northern District of Florida.
Read the lawsuit (PDF)