Coming from an Irish family and working for Earthjustice, I have an affection for green that is DNA-deep. But, I know the difference between the green of nature and the green of greed — and nowhere is that difference so starkly obvious as in Florida. An explosion of green algae slime, fed by uncontrolled agricultural and sewage runoff, is taking over that state’s famed waterways. It’s murdering fish by the thousands, stinking up the air, fouling everything it touchs, and preventing recreation use.
It’s like a green oil spill that can’t be shut off. Or should I say, won’t be shut off.
The source of this affliction is well known – and so is the cure: runoff limits set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after years of collaborative study with state authorities. All that stands in the way of their being implemented is the ultimate state authority: Gov. Rick Scott. Clearly in the back pocket of industry, Scott has rejected the plan, which would restore the tourist-friendly sparkle of waters that draw tourists by the millions each year. As Earthjustice attorney David Guest puts it:
Our leaders are supposed to protect public health. Instead, Scott is protecting polluters. It is particularly galling that Scott is thumbing his nose at clean water on Earth Day. Polluters have been using our public waters as their private dumping grounds for too long, and it needs to stop. The corporate lobbyists who have Scott’s ear are good at what they do. Unfortunately, when they win, the rest of us lose.
Guest knows the state’s waterways better than most alligators. He sees the devastation constantly.
We’re talking about green slime that covers our waters. Last summer, we had the worst toxic algae outbreak in Florida history – a disgusting, 100-mile long toxic algae outbreak covered the St. Johns River near Jacksonville. People couldn’t run their boats, they couldn’t swim, and dead fish piled up on the banks.This green slime comes from sewage, manure and fertilizer in our water. And now Scott wants to fight cleanup? That’s irresponsible. We need to keep our waters safe for kids to wade in.
The EPA’s limits will encourage pollution prevention: better sewage treatment, more precise fertilizer application, and better controls for manure at industrial agricultural operations.
- Florida health authorities have had to close swimming areas and drinking water plants because of toxic algae. The algae outbreaks can cause breathing problems, sores, rashes, illness, and even death. Please see the attached photo of a warning sign at Fanning Springs, taken March 26, 2011 by K. Standridge. More pictures of this health threat are available here.
- The state Department of Environmental Protection first publicly sounded the alarm about the dangers of toxic algae outbreaks in a 2000 scientific report – 11 years ago.
- Gov. Scott is at odds with the public. When the EPA asked the public to comment on the new water pollution limits, the agency received 22,000 comments, and 20,000 were in support of the new standards.
- The new limits were developed jointly by the EPA and Florida’s DEP after years of study and consultation. Scientists at the two agencies jointly reviewed 13,000 water samples at 2,200 sites around the state to develop the new regulations.
Two years ago, then-Florida DEP Secretary Michael W. Sole acknowledged the state’s serious problem with the so-called “nutrients” phosphorus and nitrogen. Here are excerpts of the DEP press release, dated January 2009:
Numeric nutrient criteria will significantly improve Florida’s ability to address nutrient pollution in a timely and effective manner. The State of Florida recognizes that more needs to be done to address nutrient pollution in our rivers, streams, lakes and estuaries … Excess nitrogen and phosphorus levels (nutrient pollution) in water bodies can cause harm to aquatic ecosystems and threaten public health.
Nutrient pollution can lead to water quality problems such as harmful algal blooms, low-oxygen “dead zones” in water bodies and declines in wildlife habitat. These effects also disrupt recreational activities and pose threats to public health.
Water quality degradation from nutrient pollution is a significant environmental issue in Florida. Florida’s 2008 Integrated Water Quality Assessment revealed that approximately 1,000 miles of rivers and streams, 350,000 acres of lakes, and 900 square miles of estuaries are impaired by nutrients. The actual number of miles and acres of waters impaired for nutrients is likely higher, as many waters that have yet to be assessed may also be impaired.
The EPA’s action to set new pollution limits for Florida came in the summer of 2009 — a year after Earthjustice filed its 2008 suit 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. The suit challenged the decade-long delay by the state and federal governments in setting limits for nutrient pollution.