David Guest: Polluted waters fueling algae outbreaks, killing wildlife


Published: Saturday, June 29, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 10:19 p.m.

A few miles from Florida's state Capitol, a lake has broken out with toxic algae that causes skin rashes and liver damage in humans and kills wildlife. I wish I could tell you this was an isolated case.

The fact is, hundreds of manatees, dolphins, birds and fish have been washing up dead on both the east and west coasts. Those waters are fouled by sewage, manure, fertilizer and sewage — pollution that fuels algae outbreaks.

How bad is it? Take a look:

* In Southeast Florida's Indian River Lagoon, algae outbreaks are causing what Discovery News calls a “mass murder mystery” — a dead manatee floats up about every two weeks. The tally there since last summer is over 111 manatees, along with more than 46 dead dolphins and 300 pelicans.

* In Orlando, the spring-fed Wekiva River is covered by slimy algae and residents are warned to stay away from Lake Harris and Little Lake Harris, which have turned murky brown from another algae outbreak.

* There's a persistent algae outbreak off the popular tourist mecca of Sanibel Island, and a water treatment plant on Southwest Florida's Caloosahatchee River that's supposed to serve 30,000 people shut down; the algae makes the water unusable — even dangerous — for drinking.

* In Jacksonville, residents are seeing signs that the “Green Monster” massive algae outbreak is coming back on the St. Johns River. The Green Monster covered almost 100 miles of the St. Johns with slime in 2005 and 2009, causing public health warnings, fish kills and turning water pea-soup green.

A scientist doing an aerial survey for manatees along the river recently told the Florida Times-Union that he and his pilot suffered “respiratory distress” just flying 500 feet over the algae outbreak.

We are in this predicament because, to put it plainly, Florida's government is gutting common-sense rules that would help stop algae outbreaks.

Outdated septic tanks cause algae outbreaks, but the Legislature gutted septic tank regulations. Polluter lobbyists drafted the state's rules on sewage and manure pollution, the Scott administration adopted the weak language and the Legislature approved it. When some lawmakers proposed an amendment for the state to collect reports of skin rashes and health effects from this pollution, the Legislature overwhelmingly voted it down.

Scott's administration has also fired attorneys and staffers who dared to enforce laws at the state's Department of Environmental Protection. Enforcement cases against polluters have plummeted.

Powerful agricultural corporations — many of them out of state — are now polluting Florida waters without consequence. The “rules” around agricultural runoff are particularly galling because they are — really! — on the honor system.

A big polluter like an industrial plant would be fined if it piled up a bunch of toxic stuff that washed into a river. But that's not true for Florida agricultural operations. Florida allows them voluntary goals called “best management practices.” All the corporation has to do is say it is implementing a plan to control pollution, and it is exempt from monitoring!

It's as if a big trucking company were allowed to blow through speed traps so long as it submitted a “speed-limit compliance plan” to the Highway Patrol.

Fishermen watching the massive die-offs along the Indian River Lagoon — considered the most diverse estuary in North America — have little hope of help from Florida's leaders. The Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute got the Legislature to approve $2 million this year for a study of the lagoon's water chemistry. Scott vetoed it.

David Guest is Florida managing attorney for Earthjustice, a national public interest law firm.

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