Monday, October 19, 2009

Polluters Pay to Play in FL? Part II

Continuous discharge of polluted freshwater from Lake Okeechobee created a dark plume of water visible in the St. Lucie Inlet and along the Atlantic Coast in 2003. The plume caused economic and environmental hardships. Will better rules from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency be helpful?
It is hard to imagine anyone defending the polluters that are turning our waters green and slimy like the creek shown above. But hey, money talks.

At long last, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is agreeing to set legal, enforceable limits on the nutrients that are poisoning Florida’s public waters. Now the state’s biggest polluters are trying to get out of complying.

Exploiters have been fattening their wallets by ruining the resources that belong to the public. State regulators — like former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Virginia Wetherell — do little to stop it, year after year. Many of them, like Wetherell, work for polluters after they leave office (She’s lobbied for phosphate miners and utilities. Former DEP Secretary David Struhs went to work for polluter International Paper.)

When we — the public — finally win a victory for clean water, the polluters come out with the same stock arguments: No. 1, they say, “If we have to protect clean water, it will cost too much and we’ll go broke.” No. 2: “If we want to do anything to fix polluted waters, we have to do more studies for many more years.” And No. 3: “The fish like it!”

That third argument is now being peddled by a lobbyist for the Florida Farm Bureau, who claims cleaning nutrients out of Florida lakes will hurt fish populations. Huh? Florida was teeming with fish before fertilizer and cow manure spewed daily into our lakes and rivers, turning them pea-soup green.

A Florida DEP report last year found that half the state’s rivers and more than half of its lakes had poor water quality. When nutrient-poisoned waters are used as drinking water sources, disinfectants like chlorine react with dissolved organic compounds, contaminating drinking water with harmful chemical byproducts.

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.

Florida polluters are trotting out their hackneyed arguments now because the U.S. EPA is finally acting. EPA’s decision came as a historic settlement with five environmental groups after we sued to stop polluters from continuing to slime our waters.

The polluters are now trying to block the settlement. Big Agriculture, developers, utilities, and phosphate miners have filed legal challenges to try to force the EPA to back down. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson is using our tax dollars to side with the polluters.

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. We can all plainly see that’s not true. Nutrient poisoning is Florida’s worst water pollution problem. We’ve got contaminated drinking water, beaches closed by dangerous bacteria, rivers fouled with green slime, dead fish, dead lakes, and excess nutrients bubbling out of our crystal springs.

It’s time to clean it up. 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.

Guest, of Tallahassee, is managing attorney for the Florida office of Earthjustice, an environmental-advocacy group.

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