Fishermen often don’t realize how much pollution ruins fishing, but toxic contamination can stunt populations in a big way. Now, a new lawsuit blasts the state in stronger words than ever.
Earthjustice, a non-profit public-interest law firm specializing in environmental issues, filed a legal challenge against Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) because the state agency is failing to protect residents and tourists from nauseating—and dangerous—toxic algae outbreaks.
“Toxic algae outbreaks are a public health threat and they also affect Florida’s bottom line,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “These outbreaks can cause rashes, breathing problems, stomach disorders, and worse. Health authorities have had to shut down drinking water plants, beaches and swimming areas. Toxic algae can kill fish, livestock and pets, and we need to be cleaning it up.
“The state DEP rule was basically written by lobbyists for corporate polluters,” Guest said. “Polluters know it is cheaper for them to use our public waters as their private sewers, and the state is giving them the green light to keep doing it.”
“The DEP’s decision to weaken pollution standards is an economic slap in the face to the thousands of Floridians who work in the tourism industry,” said St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon, who has watched businesses suffer as the St. Johns gets covered with repeated toxic slime outbreaks. “This pollution hurts people who work in restaurants, hotels, beach concessions, the fishing industry, the boating industry, the dive industry, and the real estate sales and rental markets.”
After years of seeing toxic algae outbreaks on Florida tourist beaches like Sanibel Island and at fishing destinations like the St. Johns River, Earthjustice filed a Clean Water Act federal lawsuit in 2008 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. Johns Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club. In 2009, the EPA set numeric limits for the phosphorus and nitrogen that comes from sewage, fertilizer and manure in Florida waters.
The rule that the EPA set for Florida was a “speed limit sign” that gave everyone fair notice of what specific level of pollution would be allowed in a particular water body. If the speed limit was exceeded, regulators could take action to prevent toxic algae outbreaks and green slime. But the DEP’s rule doesn’t provide that certainty, and it won’t protect public health.
“The DEP rule basically says: ‘Well, there could be a speed limit sign here, but we need to do a study first and then we’ll decide.’ Under the state DEP rule, by the time the state takes action, a waterway is already slimed. The whole point is to clean it up before it gets that bad,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation.
The Sierra Club offered photographic proof of the dire need for immediate cleanup action. The Club unveiled an interactive map of Florida’s slimed waterways, which stretch from South Florida to the Panhandle.
“With the help of local citizens and clean water watchdogs all over the state, the Sierra Club has compiled photos of the red and green muck that plagues too many of the springs, rivers, lakes and bays of our state. This map lets you take a photographic ‘slime tour’ of Florida – and it is not a pretty picture,” said Craig Diamond, Executive Committee, Sierra Club Florida Chapter.
Earthjustice filed the administrative challenge in the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. Johns Riverkeeper, and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
“We have a massive fish kill in Estero Bay right now, and it is happening because the state has delayed acting to solve this major pollution problem for the past 15 years. The DEP’s weak rule is just going to delay cleanup further. The DEP is just kicking the can down the road another 15 years, and that’s not fair to the citizens. We all deserve clean water,” said Jennifer Hecker, policy director for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. FS