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Environmentalists Praise Proposal To Track Algae-Caused Sickness

Credit Thomas Andrew Gustafson
David Cullen speaking at the media event Tuesday on Sen. Soto and Rep. Rehwinkel-Vasilienda's amendment to the water quality bill.

When nutrient levels – nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen – are too high in Florida’s waterways, toxic algae blooms erupt damaging the ecosystem. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has a bill moving through the legislature that would put the State in charge of the problem. But environmentalists worry the bill won’t help as much as it should. So a new amendment to the bill is piquing their interest.

“The amendment these legislators are sponsoring gives DEP’s rules a chance. But if those rules don’t work and children and adults get sick, if pets, livestock and wildlife die as a result of exposure to fresh or salt water with an algae bloom, it’s obvious we need something more. And that’s what this amendment provides.”

That’s David Cullen with Sierra Club Florida. The legislators he’s talking about are Sen. Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee) and Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel-Vasilienda (D-Tallahassee). Currently the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set rules in Florida to maintain water quality. That happened in 2009 when the EPA determined Florida’s water quality criteria didn’t meet the Clean Water Act. So the bill at hand revises the state’s rules, and with the EPA’s blessing, gives the power over water quality back to the state’s environmental agency. The sponsors of the amendment say their add-on gives assurance of a job well done.

“If you look at the pictures over there you see rashes, you see algae blooms, warnings to swimmers.”

That’s Rep. Rehwinkel-Vasilienda. And though the DEP says its water quality standards are the most stringent in the nation, Rehwinkel-Vasilienda says a safeguard never hurts.

“If we don’t have this insurance policy, these requirements that this amendment will do, we will have more of these incidents. We will have more rashes, we will have more fish kills.”

The insurance policy comes in the shape of report filings. The DEP must write-up any incident of a person diagnosed with an illness after exposure to toxic algae or when livestock, pets and wildlife die as a result of exposure. The originally filed amendment Tuesday morning would have clicked a trigger at a total of one hundred reports over the next year resetting Florida’s water rules to the federal standards. It is now going through the editing process to remove that last part. Attorney for EarthJustice David Guest says they’ll use the reports to show the state’s rules are insufficient and take, what EarthJustice sees, as the appropriate actions up to and including lawsuits.