Testimony Reveals Pollution into Lake Okeechobee Poisons South Florida Drinking Water

Experts describe cancer-causing pollutants caused by treatment for agricultural runoff


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

An expert today testified in federal court that polluted water from nearby farms and towns pumped into Lake Okeechobee leads to cancer-causing poisons that are infecting drinking water supplies for thousands of south Florida residents. Conservation groups are challenging the pumping of polluted water into Lake Okeechobee in federal court.

In a trial that began January 9 in Miami, former state regulator Herb Zebuth testified today that pollution runoff from nearby sugar plantations and urban run-off water is pumped directly into Lake Okeechobee. The lake is Florida’s largest surface drinking water supplies. When water is treated with chlorine for drinking, dangerous trihalomethanes (THMs) are formed. THMs increase the risk of bladder and colon cancer, and may be linked to heart, lung, kidney, liver and central nervous system damage. In August 2001, when polluted water was pumped into Lake Okeechobee, the town of Pahokee saw THM levels 8 to 10 times higher than EPA standards, while in South Bay THM levels were 12-13 times higher than EPA standards. Pahokee, South Bay and Belle Glade rely on drinking water directly from Lake Okeechobee

“Pollution into Lake Okeechobee is not only destroying the lake, it’s threatening the health of thousands of south Florida residents,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. Earthjustice is representing Florida Wildlife Federation in the lawsuit against the South Florida Water Management District. “Pumping polluted farm water and urban run-off water into the lake is illegal under federal law and harmful to all those who swim, fish, and drink from the lake.”

Last year, the South Florida Water Management District requested $7.5 million for a new water treatment plant for Pahokee, Belle Glade and South bay. “Belle Glade, Pahokee and South bay all use Lake Okeechobee as a source of raw water for drinking water,” the District wrote. “Lake Okeechobee receives stormwater inflows from major agricultural areas including dairy farms, livestock pastures, sugar cane fields, small vegetable farms, and sod farms and is heavily nutrient enriched as well as highly colored. Organic material in the water gives rise to trihalomethanes (THM) in the water upon treatment with chlorine; THM are cancer-causing chemicals according to the U.S. EPA.” A copy of this project request report is available here.

Conservationists argue that the South Florida Water Management District must comply with the Clean Water Act and get permits that limit the amount of pollution that can be dumped into the lake. Pollution dumping, under federal law, is allowed only when permits are obtained that closely monitor and regulate potential harms; the district has failed to obtain any permits for this activity. Trial began yesterday in Miami and could last a few weeks.

“Lake Okeechobee is a unique part of Florida’s environment and charm,” Guest said. “This illegal pollution dumping must stop immediately. The lake is the primary drinking water source for thousands of people living in south Florida. ”

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