***EARTHJUSTICE NEWS RELEASE***
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Aug. 21, 2009
David Guest, Earthjustice, (850) 228-3337
Manley Fuller, Florida Wildlife Federation, (850) 656-7113; cell (850) 567-7129
Andrew McElwaine, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, (239) 438-5472
Frank Jackalone, Sierra Club, (727) 824-8813, ext. 302; cell (727) 804-1317
Neil Armingeon; St. Johns Riverkeeper, (904) 256-7591; cell (904) 635-4554
EPA Agrees to Set Limits on Fertilizer and Animal Waste Pollution in Florida
New Policy Contrasts with inaction by Bush Administration
TALLAHASSEE – In a major step forward for the environment, President Barack Obama’s administration has signed a consent decree in which it agrees to set legal limits for the widespread nutrient poisoning that triggers harmful algae blooms in Florida waters.
“This is a refreshing change of policy after almost a decade of foot-dragging by the Bush administration,” said Earthjustice attorney Monica Reimer. “It is a real milestone in the struggle to safeguard lakes, rivers and estuaries throughout Florida.”
“We look forward to working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in developing numeric criteria to keep our waters safe,” Earthjustice attorney David Guest said.
The change in federal policy comes 13 months after five environmental groups filed a major lawsuit to compel the federal government to set strict limits on nutrient poisoning in public waters.
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 a southwest Florida drinking water plant.
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 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.
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. The suit challenged an unacceptable decade-long delay by the state and federal governments in setting limits for nutrient pollution. EPA’s agreement to set enforceable nutrient limits settles that lawsuit. The consent decree is available at: http://www.earthjustice.org/library/legal_docs/env_defense-434740-v1-fwf_v_epa_-_signed_cd.pdf
Today’s action has nationwide implications. Currently, Florida and most other states have only vague limits regulating nutrient pollution. The U.S. EPA will now begin the process of imposing quantifiable – and enforceable -- water quality standards to tackle nutrient pollution.
“Floridians around the state will be breathing a sigh of relief with the EPA’s new commitment to finally take action,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation. “The delays on the part of the state and federal governments have been unbelievable. Today’s action is welcome, and it has been a long time coming.”
“The EPA's ruling could not have come at a more appropriate time for the St. Johns River,” said St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon. “Nutrient pollution has once again caused the appearance of the ‘Green Monster’ and has made the river potentially unsafe for residents and wildlife. This ruling paves the way for meaningful river restoration.”
The EPA originally gave Florida a 2004 deadline to set limits for nutrient pollution, which the state disregarded. 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.
The dire state of Florida’s polluted waters made the delay unacceptable and dangerous, so the five groups sued.
“These numeric standards address an outstanding need we’ve had for quite a while to protect our local coastal waterways such as the Caloosahatchee River, Naples Bay and the Ten Thousand Islands,” said Andrew McElwaine, president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “Setting a quantitative water quality standard for nitrogen, one of the primary pollutants degrading our coastal waterways, should help limit the development of harmful algal blooms. With a numeric standard in place, we can definitively assess whether our waterways can support healthy ecosystems, a healthy economy and protect public health and safety.”
Florida’s current narrative standard says: “In no case shall nutrient concentrations of a body of water be altered so as to cause an imbalance in natural populations of aquatic flora and fauna.”
Clearly, nutrient poisoning is altering water bodies all over Florida. As Earthjustice noted in a letter it sent to the EPA:
“Potentially toxigenic cyanobacteria have been found statewide, including river and stream systems such as the St. Johns River in the Northeast Region and the Caloosahatchee River in the Southwest Region. In the Southeast Region, 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. Warning signs had to be posted by local health authorities warning visitors and residents not to come into contact with the water. Lake Okeechobee, which is categorized under state regulations as a drinking water source, is now subject to almost year-round blue-green algae blooms as a result of nutrient pollution.”
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 has suffered an outbreak this year of Pyrodinium bahamense and Takayama tuberculata has sullied waters around San Marco Island.
Nutrient pollution also fuels the explosive growth of invasive water plants like hydrilla, which now clogs countless springs, rivers and lakes.
“The Sierra Club is encouraged by the Obama Administration’s strong involvement in addressing nutrient pollution in Florida and we hope that our state agencies will follow with similarly strong actions on this issue,” said Frank Jackalone, Florida Staff Director of the Sierra Club.