The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

David Guest, Earthjustice, (850) 228-3337

Judge Approves Historic EPA Settlement: EPA and Florida Must Set Limits on Fertilizer and Animal Waste Pollution in State Waters

Polluters’ arguments rejected in favor of the environment


A federal judge in Tallahassee today approved a historic consent
decree which requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set
legal limits for the widespread nutrient poisoning that triggers
harmful algae blooms in Florida waters.

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 slimy 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.

Ruling from the bench, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle rejected
arguments made by polluters who sought to delay cleanup and get out of
complying with the Clean Water Act. Florida Agriculture Commissioner
Charles Bronson, the Florida Pulp and Paper Association, four of the
state's five water management districts, sewage plant operators, the
Florida Farm Bureau, and others tried to derail the settlement.

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,
using data collected by the Florida DEP.

"The Clean Water Act is strong medicine," said Earthjustice attorney
David Guest. "The EPA can now get on with the work of setting standards
that will clean up our waters. We're hoping to see safe drinking water,
clear springs, lakes and rivers again."

A 2008 DEP report 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 long-lasting and worsening pollution of our lakes, rivers,
beaches and springs hurts Florida's economy and needs to end," said
Florida Wildlife Federation president Manley Fuller. "This day has been
a long time coming."

"Asking for clean water is not a stretch," said St. Johns
Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon. "There are algae blooms even today in the
St. Johns River. Moving forward quickly is imperative."

"Florida is one step closer to having the tools it needs to
adequately address the threats that nutrient pollution pose to our
quality of life and our tourist economy," said Frank Jackalone of the
Sierra Club.

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. Speaking from the bench today, Judge
Hinkle said the delay was a matter of serious concern.

The EPA originally gave Florida a 2004 deadline to set limits for
nutrient pollution, which the state failed to meet. 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

The dire state of Florida's polluted waters made the delay unacceptable and dangerous, so the five groups sued.

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 has been 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

Nutrient pollution also fuels the explosive growth of invasive water
plants like hydrilla, which now clogs countless springs, rivers and

EPA's agreement to set enforceable nutrient limits is available here.

Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment. We bring about far-reaching change by enforcing and strengthening environmental laws on behalf of hundreds of organizations, coalitions and communities.