Dead Fish and Sick People Don't Stop Florida's Water Polluters

They ask Congress to keep the toxic good times flowing

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Florida’s St. John’s River is fouled this summer with green slime, and dead fish are washing up on its shores. Every time it rains, nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen poison this river and others all over Florida. The poison comes from sewage, animal manure and fertilizer.

It is a crisis big enough that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed in November 2009 to set the first-ever legal limits for nutrient poisoning.

But, now, polluters are trying to derail efforts to clean up Florida’s waters. They arrived enmasse recently at Congress, where they met with numerous federal lawmakers to try getting a rider put on the federal appropriations bill. The rider would, unbelievably, prevent EPA from setting important new limits on nutrient pollution. The rider may be introduced in a few weeks.

These polluters act as if the dead fish floating on Florida waters don’t exist. They ignore media reports like the recent TV news headline: "Unhealthy River Making Neighbors Sick." A 2008 Florida Department of Environmental Protection report found that half – half! – of the state’s rivers, and more than half of its lakes, had poor water quality.

Exposure to these algae toxins—when people drink the water, touch it, or inhale vapors from it – can cause rashes, skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions, gastrointestinal upset, serious illness and even death.

The EPA committed to set these nutrient pollution limits after Earthjustice, representing Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, and the St. Johns Riverkeeper, filed a major lawsuit in July 2008 to compel the EPA to set strict limits on nutrient poisoning in public waters.

The suit challenged the unacceptable decade-long delay by the state and federal governments in setting limits for nutrient pollution. EPA is set to finalize pollution limits for Florida’s freshwaters and lakes in October 2010. Pollution limits for estuaries and flowing waters in South Florida are to be set by August 2012.

This isn’t just Florida’s problem.

In Massachusetts, algae blooms and invasive plants now foul once-clear Silver Lake, which gets 10 million gallons of nutrient-poisoned water every day, pumped from Monponsett and Furnace Ponds.

In Colorado, Grand Lake—once one of the clearest lakes in North America—turned pea-soup green with toxic algae that can make people and animals sick. Pollution shut down a drinking water plant which uses the lake’s water. The main culprit is nutrient-poisoned water conveyed through the lake by the giant pumps and tunnels of the federal Colorado Big Thompson water-supply project.

Residents in Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida and the nation deserve to have clean water. We need to let our representatives and senators in Washington know we’ll hold them accountable if they bow to polluters instead of standing up for clean water.

David Guest worked at Earthjustice from 1990 to 2016, as the managing attorney of the Florida regional office. His countless legal battles were, in one way or another, all about water. His motivation to protect Florida’s water came from years of running boats in the state’s rivers and lakes, which convinced him that waterways are many people’s spiritual connection to nature.

The Florida regional office wields the power of the law to protect our waterways and biodiversity, promote a just and reliable transition to clean energy, and defend communities disproportionately burdened by pollution.