EPA agrees to set limits on fertilizer and animal waste pollution in Florida
On Friday, the public interest law firm Earthjustice announced a major step forward for Florida water quality with the signing of a consent decree between the federal EPA and Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that agrees to set legal limits for the widespread nutrient poisoning that triggers harmful algae blooms in Florida waters.
Earthjustice attorney Monica Reimer said this is a real milestone in the struggle to safeguard lakes, rivers and estuaries throughout Florida.
“We look forward to working with the Florida DEP 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.
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.
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, the Olga water treatment plant serving 30,000 Florida residents, in East Lee County, was shut down after a toxic blue-green algae bloom on the Caloosahatchee River threatened the plant’s water supply.
Last week’s action has nationwide implications. Currently, Florida and most other states have only vague limits regulating nutrient pollution. Florida’s current narrative standard reads: “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.”
The U.S. EPA will now begin the process of imposing quantifiable and enforceable — water quality standards to tackle nutrient pollution. The development of numeric nutrient standards will help us locally in our ongoing battle to improve water quality in the Caloosahatchee, estuary and coastal waters, many of which have been declared impaired by the DEP.
SCCF policy staff is thrilled with this news and will continue to participate in the process to bring sound science to the development of meaningful water quality standards.