Toxic Algae Harms Floridians’ Health & the $57 Billion Yearly Tourism Economy
Luckily, there is a ready and easy fix to this deadly algae problem.
Tallahassee, FL – (September 15) Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) first warned about the dangers of toxic algae outbreaks in a 2000 scientific report – eleven years ago. Life threatening algae blooms and fish kills from sewer, manure and fertilizer pollution still persist. The toxic algae problem in Chesapeake Bay was resolved with advanced wastewater treatment systems thatcut pollution at a cost of only $2.50 per household per month.
David Guest, Managing Attorney for Earthjustice’s Tallahassee office, has incourtrooms around Florida successfully tried environmental cases for the past 20 years which in one way or another were all about water. Monica Reimer has been a staff attorney with the Tallahassee Office of Earthjustice since 2003. In 2002, her victory in an off-shore oil drilling case was reported as a landmark case in the National Law Journal. David or Monica is available for interviews September 19—October 7to give up-to-date answers, discuss actions that residents can take and can discuss any aspect of this issue including the three questions below.
Why was the EPA forced to step in?
Since 1998, Earthjustice has been using legal action to get the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to apply pressure on Florida’s DEP to set limits on this toxic pollution. The EPA’s action to set new pollution limits for Florida came in the summer of 2009 — a year after Earthjustice filed its 2008 suit in the Northern District of Florida on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, St. John’s Riverkeeper, and other Florida groups. The suit challenged the decade-long delay by the state and federal government in setting limits for nutrient pollution.
The EPA entered into a settlement agreement and established new water pollution limits that were the same as the Florida state limits set by DEP based on the samenumeric criteria mandated under the Bush administration that set limits for phosphorus and nitrogen compounds which triggered deadly growths of algae in waterways throughout Florida. These limits by the Bush Administration came about as a result of Florida’s failure to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act. During the comment period, the agency received 22,000 comments, with 20,000 in support of the new standards but polluters continue to fight compliance.
Now, after lobbyist and polluters have fought these established regulations, the Florida DEP is, again, in the process of setting new statewide standards for phosphorus and nitrogen pollution. Unfortunately, the rules that state regulators have proposed so far are highly inadequate to protect public health and clean up the waters. It is critical that the state’s polluters do not end up writing the DEP’s water-pollution rules. It is critical that our state regulators protect the public, not the polluters.
What are the health impacts from toxic algae that Floridians and tourists have experienced?
In 2008, over 1,000 miles of Florida’s rivers and streams, 350,000 acres of Florida’s lakes, and 900 square miles of its estuaries were contaminated by sewage, fertilizer or manure pollution. Toxic algae has caused respiratory problems, neurological damage, nausea, diarrhea, rashes, and even death for Floridians, their pets, and tourists with hundreds of emergency room visits each year and has also contaminated drinking water for thousands. The toxic algae pollution has become so frequent and serious that the Florida Department of Health now hands out educational materials that ask people: “Have You Been Slimed?” Callers to the state’s Aquatic Toxins Hotline (1-888-232-8635) hear a recording which warns: “It is very important that pets, livestock and small children are kept out of water suspected of having a blue green algae bloom since there have been many reported cases of animals dying after drinking highly contaminated water.”Residents should report any toxic algae outbreak in waters immediately to their County Health Departments and should not touch the water.
What are the economic impacts of algae outbreaks throughout Florida’s waterways?
Florida’s economy is driven largely by real estate and tourism. Waters with toxic algae put both of these sectors in jeopardy. Visitors from around the globe come to Florida for its clear, sandy-bottomed rivers, streams, lakes, springs, bays, beaches and for the beauty and revitalization that they experience, bringing $58 billion in tourism yearly. When visitors come here and see dead fish and “No Swimming” signs, they won’t come back, and that affects our state budget and jobs. When algae outbreaks occur, workers at hotels, charter and commercial fishing boats, beachfront concessions, restaurants, bars, and waterfront rentals all pay the price.
In 2005, one of the worst toxic algae outbreaks ever recorded happened at Southeast Florida’s St. Lucie River and estuary. The entire river was covered with bright green slime. It wasn’t safe to touch the water. Waterfront property values in the area suffered a permanent decline of a whopping $500 million after the outbreak.
In June of this year an algae outbreak in the Caloosahatchee River near Fort Myers turned the river bright green, smelled like raw sewage, and killed hundreds of fish. In August a large algae outbreak slimed Old Tampa Bay. In earlier years, there were nauseating algae outbreaks on popular Florida tourist beaches like Sanibel Island and at fishing meccas like the St. Johns River near Jacksonville.
FLORIDIANS CAN TAKE ACTION
The way to make Florida’s waters clean again is to limit this pollution at its source, by upgrading old sewer plants, using modern manure management on agricultural operations and being smarter about applying fertilizer but powerful interests who profit from free disposal of pollutants in public waterways continue to fight new standards and argue that regulations would cost millions to the phosphate, property and agriculture industries. They fail to mention the sickness and death that has resulted and the billions that water pollution has posed to fishing, tourism, waterfront real estate, and health related expenses.
Residents should report any toxic algae outbreak immediately to their County Health Departments and should not touch the water. If exposed they can call the state’ Aquatic Toxins Hotline (1-888-232-8635).
At www.earthjustice.org, click on Take Action in the top heading, and find Let’s Keep Florida’s Waters Clean, to easily forward a letter to the EPA, your Senators, and your Representative.
David Guest is the Managing Attorney of Earthjustice’s Tallahassee office. In 1978, he graduated from the University of Chicago Law School where he was a member of the law review. He has a B.Sc. in Government and Economics from Florida State University. In courtrooms around Florida David has tried environmental cases for the past 20 years which were all about water. Before development, half of Florida was under water during the wet season and its 1,500 miles of coastline were teeming with life. But its beauty invited its consumption. Millions of acres were drained and converted into agricultural, industrial, and urban developments. As a result, rivers and lakes are being polluted and closed off to the public, groundwaters are being rapidly depleted by uncontrolled withdrawals from aquifers, and the lives that depend on water are threatened.
Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment.
David Guest or Monica Reimer is available for interviews from September 19—October 7.