Fred Grimm

Cancer-causing chemicals will go nicely with toxic algae, flesh-eating bacteria

Water full of algae laps along the Sewell’s Point shore on the St. Lucie River under an Ocean Boulevard bridge on June 27.
Water full of algae laps along the Sewell’s Point shore on the St. Lucie River under an Ocean Boulevard bridge on June 27. AP

Such auspicious timing. Rick’s gang at the state Environmental Regulations Commission could hardly have picked a more gruesome year to loosen restrictions on toxic chemicals dumped into Florida’s waterways.

A deluge of benzene, beryllium, trichloroethane, dichloroethylene and other known carcinogens ought to blend nicely with the stinking layers of Day-Glo green algae that has been sliming the St. Lucie River and threatening the Caloosahatchee River. Or with the massive fish kills along the Banana River, Sykes Creek, the Indian River and the Mosquito Lagoon.

The new hazard-chemical rules complement the fertilizer runoff and industrial pollution plaguing the St. Johns River and the black foaming paper-mill effluent that environmentalists claim has left a 10-square mile dead zone at the mouth of the Fenholloway River. And, of course, with the blessing of the ERC, agricultural and industrial and municipal waste pollution will continue to make its wretched way down upon Suwannee River. Sadly, I roam.

The ERC, which voted last month to allow polluters to flush higher levels of 23 toxic chemicals (including 18 known carcinogens) into rivers, streams and canals, must assume that Florida waterways have become so adulterated that no one much cares about a couple of dozen more hazardous pollutants. Not in a state that frequently warns swimmers away from waters with high levels of enteric bacteria, attributable to fecal contamination.

We’ve got dead manatees floating in the toxic algae scum on the Indian River Lagoon. We’ve got radioactive isotopes showing up in Biscayne Bay near the Turkey Point nuclear plant.

We’ve got 450 tons of phosphorus a year flowing into Lake Okeechobee from farms, ranches, citrus groves and the Orlando suburbs. And, boosted by global warming, vibrio vulnificus, AKA “flesh-eating bacteria,” menaces swimmers in brackish coastal waters, especially when fresh-water releases (like from Lake Okeechobee), mess up the salt-water ratio. The bacterial infection killed 14 Floridians in 2015 and 5 so far in 2016.

The ERC voted 3-2 on July 26 to adopt new standards that include rules for 39 chemicals that had not been previously regulated. But the board, despite outraged public opposition, simultaneously loosened regs on the long list of other chemicals, essentially allowing state waterways to be used as an industrial sewer. “I have never seen so much public opposition to an ERC decision in the 25 years that I have been participating in ERC meetings,” said Linda Young, director of the Florida Clean Water Network.

Clearly, the ERC was more interested in serving the wants of certain special interests. “It seems to me that the chemicals whose water quality standards were lowered are those chemicals most likely to be violated by paper mills, sugar production, and fracking operations,” Randall Denker of Waters Without Borders, a Tallahassee law firm devoted to water issues, told me via email.

Denker pointed out that Gov. Rick Scott ensured the 3-2 vote by failing to fill two vacancies on the ERC, one designated for a representative of the environmental community and another looking out for local governments. Denker suspects that the commission majority was in a rush to adopt the new rules to accommodate a paper mill on the Fenholloway River. Or perhaps the ERC wanted to accommodate the governor’s buddies in the state’s oil and gas industry. “This is a major public policy change from a one in a million risk level of discharged carcinogens to one in 100,000 or one in 10,000 or even worse in some cases,” Young told me by email. “The obvious message here is that people don’t matter when there’s money to be made from dumping hazardous chemicals in the waters from which we get our drinking water or where we fish and swim.”

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and eight Democratic U.S. House members signed a letter protesting that the new chemical standards fail to “preserve the health and safety of all users, especially vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, and people whose livelihoods rely on the water, such as commercial fishermen.”

Republican state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla of Miami released his own angry statement: “I cannot understand how allowing for the increase of not one but multiple known cancer-causing agents in our waterways throughout the state makes any logical sense.”

By Friday morning, 32,330 names had been added to a petition demanding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency block Florida’s new water standards.

The Seminole Tribe filed a petition with the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings objecting that the regulations “adversely affect” tribal members “who continue to exercise their customary and traditional hunting, fishing, trapping and frogging rights on millions of acres of lands and waters across South and Central Florida.” But on Monday, according to the Tallahassee Democrat, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection responded that the Seminoles’ objections, filed on Aug. 5, had just missed the 5 p.m. deadline.

Obviously, the ERC majority wants to avoid another public hearing. Who wants to listen to all those angry people with their piddling worries about carcinogens in their drinking water and environmental devastation along their estuaries. Of course, commissioners could always argue that dousing Florida’s waterways with 23 toxic chemicals might kill off the green algae and fecal bacterial.

They’ll just write off threats to human health and marine life as collateral damage.

Fred Grimm:, @grimm_fred