Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson is siding with the state’s worst polluters to fight against cleaning up poisoned waters.
In August, in a historic move, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed a consent decree in which it agreed to set legal limits for the widespread nutrient poisoning that triggers harmful algae blooms, like the one pictured to the right, in Florida waters.
Instead of working to make the public’s water cleaner and safer, Bronson is spending tax dollars to help special interests like the Florida Pulp and Paper Association and Big Agriculture block the clean water settlement. The Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services filed a motion to intervene in the case on the polluters’ side.
“This is shameful,” said Earthjustice Attorney David Guest. “There are toxic algae blooms all over the state, water treatment plants closing due to nutrient poisoning, and yet Bronson directs the state to work for the polluters and against the people.”
Nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen poison Florida’s waters every time it rains; running off agricultural operations, fertilized landscapes, and septic systems. The poison runoff triggers algae outbreaks which foul Florida’s beaches, lakes, rivers, and springs more each year, threatening public health, closing swimming areas, and even shutting down water plants.
In a 2008 report, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection concluded that half of the state’s rivers and more than half of its lakes had poor water quality.
The St. Johns River is currently under a health advisory due to a toxigenic blue green algae bloom. In 2005, a similar bloom shut down all boat traffic on the river.
Tampa Bay suffered an outbreak this year of Pyrodinium bahamense and Takayama tuberculata has sullied waters around San Marco Island.
Potentially toxigenic cyanobacteria have been found statewide, including Southwest Florida’s Caloosahatchee River. In the Southeast, toxin levels in the St. Lucie River and estuary during an algae bloom in 2005 were 300 times above suggested drinking water limits and 60 times above suggested recreational limits. Health authorities posted signs warning visitors and residents not to come into contact with the water.
Lake Okeechobee, a South Florida drinking water source, is now subject to almost year-round blue-green algae blooms due to nutrient pollution.
Nutrient pollution also fuels the explosive growth of invasive water plants like hydrilla, which now clog countless springs, rivers and lakes.
The problem is compounded when nutrient-poisoned waters are used as drinking water sources. Disinfectants like chlorine and chloramine can react with the dissolved organic compounds, contaminating drinking water with harmful chemical byproducts.
Exposure to these blue-green algae toxins — when people drink the water, touch it, or inhale vapors from it — can cause rashes, skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions, gastrointestinal upset, serious illness, and even death. In June 2008, a water treatment plant serving 30,000 Florida residents was shut down after a toxic blue-green algae bloom on the Caloosahatchee River threatened the plant’s water supply.
Florida and most other states have only vague limits regulating nutrient pollution. Under the August agreement, the U.S. EPA agreed to begin the process of imposing quantifiable — and enforceable — water quality standards to tackle nutrient pollution.
“The federal government recognizes the urgency of cleaning up this pollution,” Guest said. “But Charlie Bronson and the polluters wants to take us backwards. The public won’t stand for it.”
The settlement with EPA came 13 months after five environmental groups filed suit to compel the federal government to set strict limits on nutrient poisoning in public waters.
The public interest law firm Earthjustice filed the suit in the Northern District of Florida on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. John’s Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club in July 2008.
Federal District Judge Robert Hinkle will hear arguments in the case on Nov. 16, at the federal courthouse in Tallahassee.