A major decision in federal court today will put an end to government-sanctioned pollution that’s been fouling Lake Okeechobee for more than three decades.
The case, first filed in 2002 by Earthjustice, challenged the practice of “backpumping.” For years, South Florida sugar and vegetable growers have used the public’s waters, pumped out of giant Lake Okeechobee, to irrigate their fields. They wash the water over their industrial-sized crops, where it is contaminated with fertilizers and other pollutants. Then, they get taxpayers in the South Florida Water Management District to pay to pump the contaminated water back into Lake Okeechobee, where it pollutes public drinking water supplies. Lake Okeechobee provides drinking water for West Palm Beach, Fort Myers, and the entire Lower East Coast metropolitan area.
Earthjustice contended that the South Florida Water Management District was violating the Clean Water Act by allowing the agricultural companies to send fertilizer-laden water into public water supplies, instead of cleaning it up first.
U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Karas in the Southern District of New York ruled today that the water transfer practice does, indeed, violate the Clean Water Act.
The case ended up in New York because clean-water groups and several states also challenged the practice of allowing dirty water transfers into public water supplies without Clean Water Act protections. All the cases – including Earthjustice’s Florida case – on behalf of Friends of the Everglades, Florida Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club – were bundled together.
"It’s well established by now that a city can’t just dump sewage into a river – they’ve got to clean it first,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “The same principal applies here with water pumped from contaminated drainage canals.”
“This victory has been a long time coming,” said Florida Wildlife Federation president Manley Fuller. “Stopping pollution at the source is the key to cleaning up South Florida’s water pollution problems – the toxic green slime in the rivers, the dead wildlife washing up in the shores, the contaminated drinking water -- and this decision will make that happen at long last.”
"Big sugar corporations have been illegally dumping dirty water into Lake Okeechobee for years. They won't be able to do that anymore, thanks to this very important decision by the federal courts," said Sierra Club's Florida Staff Director, Frank Jackalone.
Transfers of contaminated water have triggered numerous toxic algae outbreaks around the United States. The algae growths can make people sick and sometimes kill livestock or pets that drink the water. The drinking water supplies for millions of Americans across the country have been affected, including notable cases in Florida, Colorado, New Hampshire, and California. The dirty water is a health risk for pregnant women, and taxpayers are on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in additional treatment costs while polluters put more profits in their pockets.
“Instead of tightening protections and cleaning up the pollution, the EPA chose to legalize it,” said Albert Slap, attorney for Friends of the Everglades. “Now the courts have settled it – the South Florida Water Management District has to comply with the Clean Water Act.”
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