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The fight to protect Florida waters

Hold polluters accountable for what they do to Florida waters

It is hard to imagine anyone defending the polluters that are turning our waters green.

At long last, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is agreeing to set legal, enforceable limits on Florida's worst water pollution problem: excess nutrient runoff from fertilizer and manure. Now the state's biggest polluters are trying to get out of complying.

Florida has one of the worst water pollution problems in the nation. We've got toxic algae blooms, contaminated drinking water, beaches closed by dangerous bacteria and Red Tide, rivers fouled with green slime, dead fish, dead lakes and excess nutrients bubbling out of our crystal springs.

A Florida Department of Environmental Protection report last year found that half the state's rivers and more than half of its lakes had poor water quality. Exposure to 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 people shut down after a toxic blue-green algae bloom on the Caloosahatchee River threatened the plant's water supply.

Yet, for years, the state has allowed polluters to voluntarily control their messes, in a weak regulatory program called "Best Management Practices." It's developed into a secret honor code system for a well-heeled, politically powerful industry.

And the state has tipped the balance, economically speaking. A political favor, now enshrined in state law, says agricultural operations don't have to install pollution controls unless the measures will either increase a company's profits or are cost-neutral.

What about the taxpayers' cost? Is it really fair to give the corporations a break when we taxpayers are on the hook for billions of dollars in water pollution cleanup costs? When our rivers and lakes are covered with green slime? What about the effect on our tourism industry?

Best Management Practices are in use along the St. Johns River, and they don't work.

Polluters are complaining now because the U.S. EPA is finally acting. The EPA's decision was a historic settlement with five environmental groups after Earthjustice sued to stop polluters from sliming our waters. Big Agriculture, developers, utilities, and phosphate miners have now filed legal challenges to try to force the EPA to back down.

Joining their side, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson claims that stopping pollution will economically hurt agricultural corporations. In reality, more responsible fertilizer application should save farmers money, because the only fertilizer that runs into lakes and rivers is fertilizer that's wasted. Properly applied, it is supposed to be on the plants. If you lose less fertilizer, you save money.

The cheapest way to deal with nutrient pollution is to control it at its source, rather than spending billions to clean up rivers, lakes and bays.

Bronson claims that the new nutrient standards will be "arbitrary." The standards will be set by scientists at the EPA, using data from the Florida DEP. Lawyers are not involved. His claims that Florida won't be able to do prescribed burning in our forests and that we'll have to import our food are inaccurate.

Remember: Polluters said the Clean Water Act would kill business. They said the Clean Air Act would bankrupt companies. Developers said the Growth Management Act would stop development. All of that was baloney and still is.

It's time to hold polluters accountable for what they are washing into our rivers, lakes, bays, and springs. The EPA is ready to do it, and so are Floridians.

David Guest is an attorney for Earthjustice in Tallahassee. Earthjustice is a nonprofit organization dedicated to enforcing and strengthening environmental laws (earthjustice.org).

Hold polluters accountable for what they do to Florida waters 11/08/09 [Last modified: Sunday, November 8, 2009 9:06pm]

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