Algal blooms in the St. John’s River are killing dozens of fish and possibly other animals, and some activists are pinning the blame on nutrient runoff from large companies like Georgia-Pacific and JEA. But the Environmental Protection Agency has made little headway in the effort to regulate the level of nutrients in Florida waters, and some Florida politicians have even sought to block any new controls from coming online.
The EPA has proposed Numeric Nutrient Standards in order to establish water quality standards for Florida lakes, flowing waters, and canals that, according to its website, would “establish a framework for Florida to develop ‘restoration standards’ for impaired waters.”
The proposed standards came on the heels of a 2008 lawsuit filed by the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, and the St. Johns Riverkeeper. The suit, which was filed against the EPA, claimed the lack of nutrient standards was a violation of the Clean Water Act: “The United States Environmental Protection Agency’s duty under the CWA is to protect public health and the environment. Both the letter and the spirit of its mandate requiring that it promptly develop numeric nutrient standards to protect the waters — and the people — of the State of Florida.”
The suit came about as a result of the presence of blue-green algae (or cyanobacteria) in many of Florida’s waters — which has, recently, been even greater than usual. Though algal blooms are often described as a “natural phenomenon,” many environmental groups note that in such large quantities, they are clearly a result of runoff.
The suit cites the many health hazards associated with the algae as reason enough to enact standards for phosphorus and nitrogen:
Exposure to blue-green algae toxins through ingestion, dermal contact or inhalation can cause rashes, skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions, gastrointestinal upset, serious illness, and even death. Blue-green algae toxins can contaminate drinking water supplies, endanger public health, and result in the shut down of drinking plants that rely on surface waterbodies as their drinking water source.
In 2008, a water treatment plant on the Caloosahatchee was forced to shut down as a result of one such bloom.
According to the 2008 suit, the EPA currently has only a “narrative” standard in place: No one is currently regulating the release of nutrients (from fertilizers and big businesses alike) into Florida waters. Despite several requests for comment on this article, the EPA was unresponsive, and it is currently unclear when exactly these standards will go into effect.
The EPA’s website says that an agreement was made to ”establish final standards by October 2010 for lakes and flowing waters and by October 2011 for estuarine and coastal waters.” The site further describes the implementation of the standards as varying according to the type of water affected:
EPA is proposing to classify Florida’s lakes into three groups (colored, clear & alkaline, clear & acidic) and to assign total nitrogen (TN), total phosphorus (TP) and chlorophyll a criteria to each lake group. The criteria are based on the biological response (chlorophyll a production) to TN and TP levels in Florida’s lakes.
Early last month, U.S. Reps. Ander Crenshaw and Allen Boyd proposed an amendment that would essentially block these nutrient standards from ever taking effect. The legislation would block funding to the EPA and, for all intents and purposes, block further pollution regulations in the state of Florida.
According to campaign finance documents available on OpenSecrets.org, Crenshaw, a Republican from Jacksonville, received at least $18,000 from electric utility PACs for his 2010 reelection bid.
Records also indicate that Peter Rummell, the CEO of one of Florida’s largest private landowners, St. Joe Company, made a $1,000 donation to Crenshaw in April 2009. St. Joe has been accused in the past of making environmentally insensitive development decisions. One of the company’s more recent developments, an airport that will affect more than 600,000 acres of Florida aquifers, will likely create more unwanted runoff.
Boyd, a Democrat representing the panhandle, has received over $95,000 from crop production and processing industries and at least $25,700 from electric utility industries, both of which would benefit from a lack of nutrient standards. Both Crenshaw and Boyd signed a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson requesting an extended public comment and public hearing period on the proposed nutrient standards.