For Immediate Release
David Guest, Earthjustice, (850) 681-0031
Manley Fuller, Florida Wildlife Federation, (850) 656-7113
Andrew McElwaine, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, (239) 438-5472
Frank Jackalone, Sierra Club, (727) 824-8813, ext. 302
Neil Armingeon; St. Johns Riverkeeper, (904) 256-7591
EPA Proposes Limits on Fertilizer, Animal Waste, and Sewage Pollution in State Waters
WASHINGTON - The new limits to curb sewage and fertilizer pollution proposed today by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency represent a historic first step toward cleaning up Florida's waters.
"These standards aren't as stringent as we would like, but they are a huge improvement," said David Guest, attorney for the public interest law firm Earthjustice. "All you have to do is look at the green slime covering lakes, rivers, and shorelines during our warm months to know it is worth the investment to reduce fertilizer runoff, control animal waste better, and improve filtration of sewage."
"The most cost-effective way to handle this problem," Guest added, "is to deal with it at its source."
While nitrogen fertilizer costs well under $5 per pound at the hardware store, it costs communities $235 to clean each pound of nitrogen out of lakes and streams once it is deposited there by stormwater. And the economic damage caused by toxic algae outbreaks can reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
"More effective sewage treatment and more conservative use of fertilizer saves a fortune in the long run," said Florida Wildlife Federation president Manley Fuller.
This is the first time anywhere in the US where the EPA has been forced to impose such standards on a state.
The change in federal policy comes more than a year after Earthjustice, representing four environmental groups, filed a major lawsuit to compel the EPA to set strict limits on nutrient poisoning in public waters.
Every time it rains, phosphorous and nitrogen run 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 and closing swimming areas.
A 2008 DEP report concluded that fully half of the state's rivers and more than half of its lakes had poor water quality - a dangerous reality for a state with an economy based on tourism and water-based recreation.
The pollution is clearly damaging Florida's economy. Last summer, people who wanted to fish and boat on the St. Johns River were blocked by a disgusting blanket of bright green slime triggered by sewage and fertilizer contamination. The river was placed under a public health advisory due to a toxic algae outbreak. In 2005, public health authorities shut down all boat traffic on the river because they were concerned about dangers to human health.
Property values along the St. Lucie estuary dropped by a half-billion dollars when a toxic algae outbreak covered the entire estuary. In 2009, Tampa Bay suffered a brown algae outbreak which polluted waters around San Marco Island. Thousands of dead fish washed ashore, fouling beaches.
Exposure to these 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. 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. 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.
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 the unacceptable decade-long delay by the state and federal governments in setting limits for nutrient pollution.
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 action.
"Our community has been waiting for the Florida DEP to establish meaningful nitrogen reduction programs for over 11 years. They have failed; the St. Johns River is on the brink. We are glad the EPA has stepped into this vacuum and proposed real, understandable standards. This is a historic day," said St Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon. "The only people who oppose these regulations are the polluters who continue to discharge the tons of nutrients that are destroying the health of the St. Johns River."
"The new standards proposed by EPA will help Florida clean up its polluted lakes and rivers," said Frank Jackalone of the Sierra Club. "For our fish and wildlife, which are being poisoned by excessive fertilizer runoff and sewage spills, the new rules will mean the difference between life and death. For the people of Florida, this action promises to make our drinking water cleaner and our economy stronger."
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