The new limits to curb sewage and fertilizer pollution proposed today by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency represent a historic first step toward cleaning up Florida’s waters.
"These standards aren’t as stringent as we need, but they are a major improvement," said David Guest, attorney for the public interest law firm Earthjustice. "All you have to do is look at the green slime covering lakes, rivers, and shorelines during our warm months to know it is worth the investment to reduce fertilizer runoff, control animal waste better, and improve filtration of sewage."
"The most cost-effective way to handle this problem," Guest added, "is to deal with it at its source."
While nitrogen-based fertilizer costs well under $5 per pound to spread on land, it costs $235 per pound to remove it once it gets into lakes and streams. And the economic damage caused by toxic algae outbreaks can reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
"More effective sewage treatment and more conservative use of fertilizer saves a fortune in the long run," said Florida Wildlife Federation president Manley Fuller.
This is the first time anywhere in the US where the EPA has been forced to impose such standards on a state.
The change in federal policy comes more than a year after Earthjustice, representing four environmental groups, filed a major lawsuit to compel the EPA to set strict limits on nutrient poisoning in public waters.
Every time it rains, phosphorous and nitrogen run off agricultural operations, fertilized landscapes, and septic systems. The poison runoff triggers slimy algae outbreaks which foul Florida’s beaches, lakes, rivers, and springs more each year, threatening public health and closing swimming areas.
A 2008 DEP report concluded that fully half of the state’s rivers and more than half of its lakes had poor water quality — a dangerous reality for a state with an economy based on tourism and water-based recreation.
The pollution is clearly damaging Florida’s economy. Last summer, people who wanted to fish and boat on the St. Johns River were blocked by a disgusting blanket of bright green slime triggered by sewage and fertilizer contamination. The river was placed under a public health advisory due to a toxigenic blue green algae bloom. In 2005, a similar bloom shut down all boat traffic on the river.
Property values along the St. Lucie estuary dropped by a half-billion dollars when a toxic algae outbreak covered the entire estuary. In 2009, Tampa Bay suffered an outbreak of Pyrodinium bahamense, and Takayama tuberculata has sullied waters around San Marco Island.
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. 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. 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.
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. The suit challenged the unacceptable decade-long delay by the state and federal governments in setting limits for nutrient pollution.
The EPA originally gave Florida a 2004 deadline to set limits for nutrient pollution, which the state failed to meet. The EPA was then supposed to set limits itself, but failed to do so. Under the administration of President George W. Bush, the EPA let the states off the hook by allowing them to formulate plans without deadlines for action.