An environmentalist coalition has served notice of its intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unless it intervenes with state regulators to halt the release of pollutants into the Indian River Lagoon, where endangered Florida manatees are undergoing an historic die-off.
The notice filed Monday by Earthjustice, which litigates to protect the environment, gives the EPA 60 days to act; otherwise, Earthjustice plans to sue on the behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Save the Manatee Club.
“It is painfully clear that Florida isn’t doing what’s necessary to control the sewage and fertilizer pollution that’s wrecking the Indian River Lagoon,” Earthjustice attorney Elizabeth Forsyth said in a written statement.
“It’s time for EPA to step in and enforce the Clean Water Act for the sake of the manatees and all the other creatures and people that rely on Florida’s waterways. If watching manatees starve isn’t the tipping point for the EPA to step in, I don’t know what is.”
The letter, which also invokes the Endangered Species Act, is addressed to EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Tony Able, head of the agency’s Water Protection Division. Press officers at the EPA and Florida Department of Environmental Protection have yet to respond to requests for comment.
More than 1,000 manatees have perished this year in what officials have recognized as an “unusual mortality event,” the most ever recorded, and more than half those deaths have been from starvation because toxic algae have been killing off the seagrasses on which manatees rely, the notice letter says.
State officials — finally having won federal approval for the move — have begun using lettuce to supplement the manatees’ diet.
EPA is obligated under the Clean Water Act to control this pollution, caused by phosphate and nitrogen from wastewater treatment plants, agricultural runoff, leaking septic systems, and other sources, the letter says.
“New information shows that the current criteria suffer from lax enforcement, an inappropriately long trajectory to achieve compliance, and a failure to take into account the impact of legacy pollution,” the letter complains.
“As a result, approximately 12 percent of the estimated Florida manatee population statewide has died, with the Atlantic subpopulation having lost approximately 19 percent of its population. In short, both the Indian River Lagoon and the manatee are presently in the midst of ecological collapse,” it continues.
“Further, it appears likely that the 2021 unusual mortality event will not be a one-time event, but rather portends a grim future of continued manatee deaths unless more effective actions are taken to address the key environmental factor driving them — nutrient pollution of key estuary habitats that is destroying habitat, including food for manatees and many other species.”
Any suit would be filed in federal court but Earthjustice hasn’t decided yet upon a specific venue, Forsyth said via email.
“It’s disgraceful that hundreds of manatees have died as a direct result of regulators’ failure to protect our water quality,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in her own written statement.
“The Indian River Lagoon is an ecological wonder that supports not just manatees, but green sea turtles, snook, tarpon, and a stunning diversity of marine life. The mass death of these manatees, which was completely preventable, makes it clear just how critical it is that the EPA take swift action to protect the vibrant ecosystem they live in before it’s too late,” she said.
“Until Florida is forced to rein in its rampant pollution, manatees will continue to die slow, agonizing deaths by starvation every winter,” said Lindsay Dubin, staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “The EPA must act immediately to improve water-quality lest it further jeopardizes the future of this iconic species.”
At issue are “total maximum daily loads,” or TMDLs, of pollutants allowed under federal and state regulations.
Under federal law, “EPA must determine that the TMDL provides reasonable assurances that point and nonpoint source control measures will achieve expected load reductions,” Earthjustice wrote.
“Lax enforcement and compliance for both point and nonpoint sources suggests that the current TMDLs are ineffective at controlling nutrients into the Indian River Lagoon. EPA must therefore reinitiate consultation to consider this new information suggesting that the current TMDLs are not being effectively implemented and that the TMDLs lack reasonable assurances they will achieve load reductions.”
Existing regulations allow for up to 90 days each year of discharges from wastewater treatment plants during heavy rainfall, of up to several million gallons per day, but these are “poorly reported,” Earthjustice says.
Meanwhile, the state has cut back on both the number of inspections of these units and the amounts in fines assessed, which a 2020 Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility report referred to as “the traffic ticket approach.”
The letter points to low participation rates by agricultural operations in state programs to limit discharges of fertilizers. Nonparticipation is supposed to bring state penalties but the DEP has imposed none, it says.
Neither do the regulations account for “legacy muck,” or pollutant-laden sediments on the lagoon bottom, which as they deteriorate cloud the water and release nitrogen and phosphorus. According to the warning letter, an estimated 5 million cubic yards of muck lie within the lagoon, accounting for 30 percent of the nutrient load. Existing regulations are supposed to account for this source but do not, the document says.
–Michael Moline, Florida Phoenix
Timothy Patrick Welch says
Like many places, the failure of past generations serves as a foundation for enduring renewal.
The toxic or “highly polluted” sediment found in many tributaries eventually makes its way to the ocean.
Let us not repeat the failures of past generations.
Gina Weiss says
It’s about time, lawsuits work, EPA is suppose to exist to protect the environment and wildlife not to buddy up with corporate clowns, developers and greedy pay for play administrative sewerage plants executives and the likes. Hope Earthjustice and all affiliated groups sue the living hell out of them.
this problem would not be so bad if homeowners didn’t insist on fertilizing to get the “perfect” lawn
Celia M Pugliese says
Oldtimer you wrong with your blame on homeowners as I see the manatees starving come to my seawall to eat the vines hanging from my backyard. What is killing them is the greedy entities allowed to dump their untreated sewage into our coastal waters same as the oil leaks from platforms in the Gulf, by the one’s we elect for Tallahassee and Fed (example Trump did away with the FL Clean Water Act provisions: https://baysoundings.com/wanting-it-to-all-go-away/?emci=c4b52f80-7c62-ec11-94f6-0050f2e65e9b&emdi=ca1deee9-8962-ec11-94f6-0050f2e65e9b&ceid=553475
Gina Weiss says
Celia M Pugliese: You are EXACTLY RIGHT Celia, I call it the look at the shiny coin djstraction while the big wigs are the biggest offenders as they blame the homeowners. They need to clean up their acts first.
I said the homeowners contribute to the problem not the main cause, what happens to the runoff from all that yard fertilizer?
The government entity entirely responsible for allowing this problem to become so severe is the State of Florida. Guess what, this state has its own state Department of Environmental Protection (pun intended), and could be not only strictly enforcing existing regulations but also proposing new ones to help curb the increase in manatee deaths that have been on an upward spike for a number of years in this state. This environmental group is attempting to bully the federal government into somehow forcing the state of Florida to get tougher when the lawsuit should have instead been filed in federal court against the state! I’m not a fan of their tactics, and I feel this is a misguided attack on the federal environmental agency that is much stricter and doing much more than the state. After all, I believe, like many other things the state has done, the only reason the State of Florida created the state environmental agency was so it wouldn’t be forced to adhere to the federal agency’s standards.
Jane Gentile-Youd says
Amen Gina. Pitiful society we have become.
John Stove says
Trump and his imbecilic administration rolled back provisions of the Clean Water Act in 2020….reduced the ability of the EPA to enforce or even seek compliance to eliminate certain aspects of water pollution and runoff (fertilizer) that cause algae blooms.
Another “gift” from the Orange clown and the rest of his idiotic Republican party.
Decades of seagrass loss from repeated algal blooms in the lagoon — mostly a result of human pollution carried by rainfall runoff — has turned once lush meadows into barren moonscapes. For the first time, we’ve had such a large number of manatees that have literally starved to death, plus boat strikes are the largest cause of death and there you have the overpopulation of the sunshine state and the highest number of boaters ( as of end of year 2020, 959 thousand boaters are registered in Fl.) So boater education should be a must, but getting that passed and enforced would be difficult.
“Please share the article and tell your lawmakers this session to hold polluters (not the public) accountable!”
— Florida Conservation Voters
Vote as if your world’s existence depends on it. It does.
Gina Weiss says
Pogo: THANK YOU. It is time to hold the drecks of society accountable. I am tired of the finger pointing, the powers that be are in our government to hold the EPA , developers, corporate clowns, sewerage plant executives and the like. How is one to hold the public accountable when the biggest head honchos are committing the biggest crimes an assaults on our environment.
And thank you.
We may well have already squandered the future. I hope not.
Sincerely, Happy Holidays to you and yours.