Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Lawsuit looms to protect manatees, sea turtles in Indian River Lagoon

Manatees are threatening to sue the Florida Department of Health over leaky septic tanks tainting their habitat.

On behalf of manatees — which are actually named as the plaintiffs in the case — two other animal species and the chairman of an environmental group, attorneys filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue state health officials Thursday over septic tank waste that has polluted the Indian River Lagoon on Florida's east coast.

Hundreds of manatees, dolphins and pelicans have died in the lagoon, once considered one of the most productive estuaries in North America. The deaths were preceded by toxic algae blooms that wiped out more than 47,000 acres of its sea grass beds, which one scientist compared to losing an entire rainforest in one fell swoop.

Fueling the algae blooms and darkening the lagoon's once clear waters are rising amounts of nutrient pollution, the result of fertilizer in storm runoff and leaking septic tanks.

Thirty years of state and federal reports show the connection between the septic tanks and the pollution in the lagoon, said Christopher Byrd, one of two lawyers who filed the notice of intent letter.

"Florida knew these septic tanks were leaking harmful pollution that ties directly to harmful algae blooms but kept permitting them," he said.

The notice letter is not a lawsuit, but rather a way to get a government agency to negotiate to avoid one. In the letter, the two lawyers call for state health officials "to immediately cease the issuance of septic tank authorizations in the Indian River Lagoon drainage basin."

They also want the state Department of Health to find and fix any septic tanks that are leaking into the lagoon.

Health department spokeswoman Sheri Hutchinson said the letter has been referred to the agency's legal staff, but she said, "The department has been an active partner in discussions regarding the Indian River Lagoon and has taken all necessary steps to protect the public health."

So far scientists have been unable to show a direct link between the pollution in Indian River Lagoon and the deaths of the manatees, dolphins and pelicans. But Byrd said the pollution has definitely harmed the habitat of endangered species, which is what matters under federal law.

The notice of intent letter says the Health Department's continued septic tank permitting violates the Endangered Species Act because of the effect on manatees and two other endangered species, the green sea turtle and the Atlantic salt marsh snake.

The letter says it has also hurt the livelihood of Cocoa Beach eco-tour guide Tim Chastain, who is also founding chairman of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and is their other client.

Whether there's a lawsuit or not, "we're hoping to bring real change to the way people think about their waste," Byrd said.

He said he wishes someone had stepped in long ago to save the Indian River Lagoon the way the Tampa Bay Estuary Program was able to curtail septic tank pollution in its area, reviving sea grass beds and improving the bay's overall health.

Craig Pittman can be reached at Follow him @craigtimes on Twitter.

Lawsuit looms to protect manatees, sea turtles in Indian River Lagoon 03/13/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2014 6:25pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. HomeTeam 25: Football rankings for Tampa Bay


    1. Armwood (2-0)

    Up next: at Blake (Thursday)

    Armwood High School quarterback Devin Black (7) hands the ball off to running back Larry Anderson (13) during the Spring Football Jamboree in Seffner, Fla. on Thursday, May 18, 2017.
  2. Florida ethics board to hear Go Hillsborough complaint against Buckhorn, Hagan, Murman


    TAMPA — Two years after complaints accused Tampa and Hillsborough County elected leaders of steering a transportation contract to a politically connected firm, the state’s ethics police will finally hear the case.

    Florida Commission on Ethics will hear complaints next month against Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, as well as Commissioner Sandy Murman.
  3. Don't expect to see protests in college football any time soon


    The whispers have segued to chatter. In time, it may evolve into rumblings, or even a groundswell.

    Following the national anthem, helicopters fly over Ohio Stadium in a missing-man formation in tribute to John Glenn before a game between Army and Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. (Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch/TNS)
  4. AAA expects gas prices in Tampa Bay will continue to fall


    Ticking slowly and steadily, regular gas prices have receded for the last 10 consecutive days. The average unleaded gas price in Florida is $2.67 this morning, a nickel cheaper than a week ago. In Tampa Bay, the current average unleaded gas has dropped 7 cents from a week ago to $2.62. The national average for regular …

    Gas prices for regular gas continue to decline. In Tampa Bay, the current average unleaded gas is down 7 cents from a week ago at $2.62 a gallon. [Times file photo]
  5. Restaurant review: Mortar & Pestle in Seminole Heights should focus on mom-and-pop pharmacy vibe

    Food & Dining

    By Laura Reiley

    Times Food Critic


    Sometimes, the more time you have with a project, the more complicated it gets. I started hearing about Mortar & Pestle in Seminole Heights about 18 months ago. It was the vision of Ujwal Patel, a pharmacist;

    Mortar & Pestle opened in Seminole Heights in Tampa in August. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]