Conservationists Wrap Up Case Arguing Lake Okeechobee Pollution is Illegal

Court will next hear polluters and EPA on why pollution should not be regulated


David Guest, Earthjustice, (850) 681-0031
Jared Saylor, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500

Environmental groups rested their case today in a trial seeking to end the pumping of polluted water from surrounding farms and urban areas into Lake Okeechobee. The court has heard several experts testify that water pollution in the lake has reached dangerous levels, producing toxic algae blooms and threatening drinking water supplies for South Bay, Belle Glade and Pahokee. The trial in federal court in Miami is expected to continue for at least another two weeks.

Earthjustice, representing Florida Wildlife Federation, argued that pumping millions of gallons of polluted runoff water into Lake Okeechobee without a permit violates federal law. For the first time since its creation in 1973, the Environmental Protection Agency joined a lawsuit defending the polluters. EPA is arguing that water pumping into the lake does not violate the Clean Water Act. Sugar plantations near the lake apply thousands of tons of chemical fertilizers on plantations that pump runoff into canals that are eventually pumped into Lake Okeechobee. Today, the court denied a motion to dismiss argued by EPA without discussion.

“Lake Okeechobee is in serious danger, the drinking water for some cities is getting cancer-causing substances in it as a result, and EPA and the South Florida Water Management District are saying this practice of polluting the lake is okay,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “Why is our government on the other side?”

A former state regulator testified early in the trial that started January 9 that runoff from nearby sugar plantations and urban runoff is pumped directly into Lake Okeechobee. The lake is Florida’s largest water supply source. Many towns surrounding Lake Okeechobee pull drinking water directly from the lake. When the lake water is treated with chlorine, dangerous trihalomethanes (THMs) are produced. The EPA has said that people drinking water contaminated with THMs are at greater risk of bladder and colon cancer, as well as damage to heart, lung, kidney and central nervous system.

Pumping polluted water into the lake is illegal under the Clean Water Act, environmentalists argued. Federal law clearly states that permits are required in order to limit the amount of pollution that is added to a water source. The South Florida Water Management District disagrees, and has failed to obtain any permits for this pumping activity.

United States Sugar Corporation, one of the country’s largest sugar growers, has also weighed in on the side of the water district. While environmentalists concluded their case today, the defendants are expected to continue for at least two more weeks.

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