It Takes Heart To Keep Florida's Waterways Clean

Industry-fed politicians fight court order to cleanse the waters

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Many years ago, a friend of mine was just starting out in the environmental movement, and the late Florida environmental activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas (she authored the classic Everglades: River of Grass) offered some advice.

If you’re going to do this kind of work, prepare to have your heart broken, because even when you win, you’re never done.

So it is with our landmark lawsuit to get enforceable limits on the amount of sewage, fertilizer and animal waste that run into Florida’s public waters. Even though we’ve had bright green slime covering rivers and lakes, even though health authorities had to close famed Florida beaches because of pollution, and even though drinking water has been fouled, polluters and misguided politicians continue to fight cleanup.

In 2009, we negotiated our historic settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in which the EPA agreed to set enforceable numeric standards in Florida for the nutrients phosphorus and nitrogen—which come from fertilizer, animal waste and improperly treated sewage. The rules were put into motion under the administration of President George W. Bush after the EPA had worked for a decade with two Republican governors of Florida to write tighter pollution standards.

On Nov. 15, we hailed a major victory when EPA finally set nutrient pollution limits for Florida’s freshwaters and lakes. But, as Stoneman Douglas warned, we’re not done.

On Dec. 7, Florida sued the EPA to try to block the new pollution limits.

It was one more painful political permutation that we’ve had to endure this year. Polluters staged a propaganda campaign with trumped-up numbers and an absurd premise: clean water is too expensive.

They reached out to political candidates, who, in turn, tried to capitalize on election-year hysteria and paint pollution cleanup as a jobs-killer. They released a study that supposedly analyzed the cost to average utility customers with scare-tactic numbers. When the EPA analyzed the study, the agency found that the actual cost would be a tenth of what the polluters were claiming. People will pay about $3 to $6 per household per month. A reasonable price for clean water.

Florida’s lawsuit against the EPA was engineered by two outgoing Florida politicians—Attorney General Bill McCollum and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson. But it is being embraced by incoming Florida leaders, including Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott.

Florida’s leading newspaper, The St. Petersburg Times, took our newly elected politicians to task for shilling for polluters instead of protecting public health. A Times editorial said:

These leaders need to get their facts—and their priorities—straight. Polluted water endangers public health, threatens the golden geese of property values and tourism, and destroys the very environment that attracts residents here. The state should welcome the new standards and work with polluters to clean up the public’s waterways.

This new turn of events in the political and legal arenas is a setback at a time when we’ve made so much progress. But we know that the public is behind us. The EPA reports that it received 22,000 public comments on the proposed new nutrient pollution standards, and a full 20,000 of those comments were in support of the clean water standards.

 We will continue our fight in the coming year. Our hearts are not broken. And we’re definitely not done.



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.