Closing Arguments Summarize Lake Okeechobee Contamination Case

South Florida Water Management District claims exemption from Clean Water Act compliance


David Guest, Earthjustice, (850) 681-0031
Manley Fuller, Florida Wildlife Federation, (850) 656-7113
Jared Saylor, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500

A federal lawsuit seeking to reduce contamination of Lake Okeechobee concluded today in Miami with environmentalists calling for limits on pollutants that are destroying the south part of the lake and contaminating drinking water supplies for Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay residents.

Last January, Earthjustice, representing Florida Wildlife Federation, began a months long trial seeking to require the South Florida Water Management District to comply with the Clean Water Act.  The District has repeatedly violated the Act by pumping billions of gallons of polluted runoff water into Lake Okeechobee in order to cheaply dispose of contaminated flood water.  This pollution into the lake has destroyed fish and wildlife habitat in the south part of the lake and fouls drinking water with dangerous chemicals.  The state and EPA have designated Lake Okeechobee as one of the state’s largest surface drinking water source. 

“We showed in the trial that the district is ruining the south part of the lake and contaminating drinking water supplies for cities around the Lake.  The Clean Water Act is supposed to stop this kind of thing,” said David Guest, a lawyer with Earthjustice, who is representing Florida Wildlife Federation in the suit. 

During testimony, University of Florida professor Bill Wise, a drinking water expert, testified that the huge plug of pollution from the district’s pumps gets into the cities’ water intakes where it forms cancer-causing compounds when it reacts with disinfectants used to treat the water.  He testified that the city water treatment plants need multi-million dollar carbon filters in order to make the water safe to drink. 

“Not only is pollution from the District pumps ruining the Lake for fish and wildlife” said Manley Fuller, president of Florida Wildlife Federation, “it is also creating a genuine public health threat.”  Pumping of polluted floodwater sometimes causes toxic algae blooms that can move and spread throughout the Lake. 

The Water Management District contends that a technical reading of the Clean Water Act suggests it should not apply to water management districts that dump polluted water but do not generate pollution themselves.  The district also contends that requiring it to clean up its pumping discharges into the Lake would wreak havoc throughout the United States by requiring hundreds of thousands of new unnecessary permits.  At trial, environmentalists showed that Lake Okeechobee is so polluted that it is a class of its own. While backpumping under any circumstance can diminish water quality, environmentalists also showed at trial that water management projects in other states manage to convey clean water rather than contaminated water. 

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