The editorial boards of all six USA TODAY Network-Florida news organizations have issued a challenge to our state’s elected leaders: put public health at the heart of environmental policy. At Lee Future, we feel this is directly in line with our mission to improve quality of life for Lee County residents. We support and join them in their efforts to prioritize environmental protection in the name of public health. Florida leaders, will you rise to the occasion?
Originally Published on The News-Press
A year ago, Florida was mired in an environmental crisis of historic proportions.
Red tide bloomed on both sides of the peninsula. Toxic blue-green algae fouled canals, lakes and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries. At one point last summer, cyanobacteria — the scientific name for blue-green algae — covered 90 percent of Lake Okeechobee. Dead marine life washed ashore by the metric ton in Southwest Florida.
It was repugnant for residents, a deterrent to tourists.
It also marked a turning point.
Citizens, businesses and activists banded together in 2018 to demand better protection of Florida’s waters. Gov. Ron DeSantis, recognizing the groundswell, took executive action during his earliest weeks on the job — overhauling water management boards, forming task forces and pledging money for environmental restoration.
Florida’s shores have been spared widespread devastation this summer — thanks largely to dissipation of the red tide bloom and temporary adjustments to how Lake Okeechobee water is managed.
Yet we know toxic algae will return.
Florida is not much better equipped to handle the problem when it does.
So far, DeSantis’ executive action has not been paired with significant legislative policy. Water-pollution limits remain too loose in Florida. The state still doesn’t have a comprehensive strategy for responding to and preventing toxic algae blooms.
Today, as residents and state leaders gather in Southwest Florida for the third Save Our Water Summit, organized by The News-Press and Naples Daily News, our six editorial boards are issuing a challenge to Florida’s elected leaders:
Make Florida a worldwide leader by putting public health at the fore of environmental policy.
Every elected official must rise to the occasion. What will it take?
For starters, the state must embrace a comprehensive strategy for responding to and preventing toxic blue-green algae blooms. Twenty-two states have clear guidelines that determine how to respond to harmful algal blooms — but not Florida.
Florida is now considering similar action. There is no time to waste.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is reevaluating its water-quality standards, including its rules for microcystin, the toxins produced by cyanobacteria. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently recommended standards for microcystin in recreational waters, and the state will weigh those, DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller confirmed via email.
Florida would be wise to go above and beyond the EPA recommendations.
Too much is a stake to dither. Toxins in blue-green algae are linked to Parkinson’s disease, ALS, kidney and liver damage.
Yet, last summer, when residents contacted the Florida Department of Health about the health risks, basic questions sometimes went unanswered. A News-Press investigation showed key agencies were unclear about their responsibilities — including posting warning signs.
Florida must do better. Putting public health at the heart of Florida’s environmental policy should mean close collaboration among agencies that respond to public health and environmental crises — as well as clear action plans for responding.
This is a pivotal moment in Florida.
The state also is reevaluating limits on sewage sludge after the Legislature failed to act this year. Biosolids contribute to blue-green algae blooms and have been an acute problem in the St. Johns River area. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers is considering permanent changes to how it manages Lake Okeechobee.
The state’s new Blue-Green Algae Task Force should play a key role in shaping Florida’s path forward, as should the revived Red Tide Task Force. The groups include some of the brightest scientific minds in the field. We hope they issue forceful recommendations that result in tangible legislative action.
DeSantis, a Republican, and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, also must rise to the occasion.
As the 2020 legislative session approaches, we need them to articulate clear clean-water proposals, then build lawmaker consensus around them.
Additionally, the new leader of the Florida Department of Health, Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, must put forth a strong strategy for responding to waterborne toxins so local health department offices aren’t caught flat-footed again.
Earlier this year, our six editorial boards at the USA TODAY Network-Florida articulated a five-part playbook for saving Florida’s waters in our “Turning the Toxic Tide” editorial series:
- Fix Florida’s broken environmental regulatory system.
- Reinvent Florida’s stripped-down approach to managing growth.
- Finish long-planned Everglades and estuary restoration projects.
- Curtail pollution from human waste, including septic tanks, sewage and biosolids.
- Ban offshore drilling in federal waters near Florida’s shores.
Public health must be the driving force behind every one of these.
While 2018 was a turning point for Florida, the real work lies ahead.
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