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Guest Column
Tampa Bay is having a heart attack | Column
Tampa Bay is sick from pollution, but with aggressive and sustained work, it can get healthy again.
City employees clean up the fish kill in Coffeepot Bayou on July 14 in St. Petersburg.
City employees clean up the fish kill in Coffeepot Bayou on July 14 in St. Petersburg. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Jul. 29

A few years ago, a friend suffered a massive heart attack during a ski trip. Due to the remote location, he couldn’t be revived. We learned later that he had underlying conditions he was managing, but the altitude and exertion were too much for his heart to handle.

A few months ago, Tampa Bay suffered a heart attack of sorts. The discharge of more than 200 million gallons of pollution-laden water from Piney Point has overwhelmed our ecosystem. This liquid fertilizer provided fuel for an existing bloom of toxic Red Tide, causing massive fish kills, human health problems and a direct hit to our tourism-based economy. And while Red Tide is naturally occurring, it is not normal for it to be this size, strength or severity in these parts of Tampa Bay.

Lindsay Cross
Lindsay Cross [ Photo provided by Lindsay Cross ]

Let’s look at it from a health perspective.

A heart attack is often a singular event that requires immediate and aggressive intervention. While heredity and other factors may contribute, it typically occurs after years of unhealthy lifestyle choices. Fortunately, if addressed properly, with a commitment to diet and exercise, and a renewed appreciation for the body, a patient may ultimately live a long and healthy life.

Our natural ecosystems are much the same. I’ll use Tampa Bay as an example. As a poster child for pollution in the ’70s and early ’80s, Tampa Bay was the literal dumping ground for human and industrial waste. Mats of putrid green algae blanketed the bay, and waterfront homeowners and businesses suffered. Billions of dollars and decades of hard work later, Tampa Bay is as clean now as it was in the 1950s. Government, industry and residents all pitched in to reduce pollution through better infrastructure, policies and individual actions. However, recent events like wastewater spills and pollution from other sources like fertilizer have led to algal blooms and a die-off of seagrass. Tampa Bay has begun to slide backward.

The dumping of wastewater from Piney Point — a known environmental liability — jolted the system in the worst way possible. Over 10 days, Lower Tampa Bay received as much nitrogen and phosphorus pollution (about 200 tons) as it usually receives in an entire year.

It’s difficult for us to fathom what this really means, so imagine eating an entire year’s worth of meals — 1,095 — in just 10 days. While I’m a scientist, not a doctor, I bet your body would probably be reacting in some very unpleasant ways.

That’s what’s happening in Tampa Bay. The immediate effect has been the worsening of the Red Tide event and mass mortalities of marine life. Since mid-June, more than 1,500 tons of dead fish and marine life like dolphins and manatees have been removed in Pinellas County alone. Longer-term effects will include seagrass die-offs that will further reduce fish stocks.

But there is hope. Just like an individual can recover from a heart attack, Tampa Bay can recover from this latest assault. But it will take aggressive and sustained work, starting with more investments in wastewater infrastructure and stronger controls on polluters. It also means more participation by individuals, whether it’s cutting back on fertilizer use, driving more fuel-efficient cars, or shifting to renewable energy sources that pollute less. If we go back to business as usual we are setting ourselves up for a slow decline or worse.

So the next time someone tries to brush off this latest environmental catastrophe as “natural” and nothing to worry about, you can ask — “Natural like a heart attack?”

Lindsay Cross has 20 years’ experience in the Tampa Bay area as an environmental scientist and conservation advocate. She is running for the Florida House of Representatives in District 68 in Pinellas County.