Historic Decision To Limit Poisoning of Waterways

EPA agreement on nutrient runoff has national impacts

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Even though a large group of polluters tried to derail it, Earthjustice won this week a historic settlement—with nationwide implications—that requires the Environmental Protection Agency to set legal limits for the widespread nutrient poisoning that triggers harmful algae blooms in Florida waters.

Our settlement has been a long time coming, and its impact goes far beyond this state’s borders. Currently, Florida and most other states have only vague limits regulating nutrients. The EPA will now begin the process of imposing quantifiable—and enforceable—water quality standards to tackle nutrient pollution, using data collected by the Florida DEP.

Nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen poison Florida’s waters every time it rains; running off agricultural operations, fertilized landscapes, and septic systems. The poison runoff triggers slimy algae outbreaks which foul 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.

Nutrient pollution also fuels the explosive growth of invasive water plants like hydrilla, which now clog countless springs, rivers and lakes.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle rejected arguments made by polluters who sought to get out of complying with the Clean Water Act. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, the Florida Pulp and Paper Association, four of the state’s five water management districts, sewage plant operators, the Florida Farm Bureau, and others tried to kill the settlement. EPA’s agreement to set enforceable nutrient limits is available here.

This change in federal policy comes 13 months after we filed 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 an unacceptable decade-long delay by the state and federal governments in setting limits for nutrient pollution. Speaking from the bench, Judge Hinkle said the delay was a matter of serious concern.

The EPA originally gave Florida a 2004 deadline to set limits for nutrient pollution, which the state failed to meet. The EPA was then supposed to set limits itself, but failed to do so. Under the administration of President George W. Bush, the EPA let the states off the hook by allowing them to formulate plans without deadlines for action.

Florida’s current narrative standard says: "In no case shall nutrient concentrations of a body of water be altered so as to cause an imbalance in natural populations of aquatic flora and fauna."

Clearly, nutrient poisoning is altering water bodies all over Florida. As we noted in a letter we 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 and the Caloosahatchee River in the Southwest 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.

In Northeast Florida, the St. Johns River near Jacksonville has been under a health advisory due to a toxigenic blue green algae bloom. In 2005, a similar bloom shut down all boat traffic on the river. In Southwest Florida, Tampa Bay has suffered an outbreak this year of Pyrodinium bahamense, and Takayama tuberculata has sullied waters around San Marco Island.

The problem is widespread, and it is going to take dedicated effort to reverse decades of inaction. A 2008 DEP report concluded that half of the state’s rivers and more than half of its lakes had poor water quality. The problem is compounded when nutrient-poisoned waters are used as drinking water sources. Disinfectants like chlorine and chloramine can react with the dissolved organic compounds, contaminating drinking water with harmful chemical byproducts.

Exposure to these blue-green 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. In June 2008, 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 water supply.

Our successful case proves that the Clean Water Act is strong medicine. The EPA can now get on with the work of setting standards that will clean up our waters. We’re hoping to see safe drinking water and clear springs, lakes and rivers again.

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.