Editorial boards urge DeSantis to turn words into action on environmental protection promises

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won some early (and unexpected) plaudits shortly after taking office for making a number of statements in support of Florida environment. This reversal of eight years (and more) of rolling back environmental protection statewide and ignoring the devastating results from this laxity in polluted waters, dying sealife and endangered residents and visitors was a welcome sight indeed.

However, subsequent actions (and inactions) left many wondering whether DeSantis would ever turn those promising words into action. That concern has been taken up by the editorial boards of six Gannett (USA Today Network) newspapers scattered around the state.. and this is what they’ve had to say:

Originally published in Gannett newspapers throughout Florida on October 11, 2019

“Back in August, we issued a challenge to Florida’s leaders:

Make public health the driving force behind environmental policy. 

For too long, a disconnect has existed between environmental regulation and human health in Florida — particularly when it comes to pollution of our waterways. 

In our Aug. 21 editorial, the six editorial boards of the USA TODAY Network in Florida called on Gov. Ron DeSantis and state lawmakers to bridge that policy divide.

We now have a response from DeSantis. It boils down to this: He’s working on it.

Algae researcher James Metcalf samples a North Fort Myers canal for toxic cyanobacteria in 2018. (Photo: Amy Bennett Williams/The News-Press)

Nine months into his first term, DeSantis deserves credit for spurring overdue conversations about the link between public health and the environment — primarily via task forces he has created to address harmful algal blooms.

Conversations are a start. But they will be meaningless unless accompanied by policy action to limit pollution and strengthen public health responses to environmental emergencies such as toxic algae blooms. 

“Governor DeSantis has charged the Department of Health and Department of Environmental Protection to join forces and address the public health challenges associated with blue green algae and red tide,” governor’s office spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice told me via email Thursday. 

She said three key leaders — DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein, Surgeon General Scott Rivkees and Chief Science Officer Tom Frazer — are meeting frequently to identify solutions and improve how water-quality information is shared with the public. 

“We look forward to announcing these improvements over the coming year,” Beatrice continued. 

After so many years of environmental degradation, the pace of reform feels painfully slow. 

Some of Florida’s most cherished ecosystems have reached a tipping point, including the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and the state’s freshwater springs. The Gulf of Mexico continues to grapple with red tide blooms, which are naturally occurring but exacerbated by man-made pollution. 

There’s reason to feel hopeful about an eventual reduction in harmful Lake Okeechobee discharges to the estuaries, thanks to a planned reservoir south of the lake. But we must simultaneously curtail pollution from fertilizer, herbicides and human waste.

“This is a reckoning for the state,” said Dr. Aaron Bernstein, co-director of The Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Florida’s unsustainable agriculture practices and sprawling development patterns have launched the state toward a future that doesn’t look promising for human health. 

To be fair, it’s not just Florida. Across the country and the world, many governments have minimized the relationship between environmental policies and public health. 

“If you look at schools of public health across the United States, environmental health is almost always one of the smallest departments,” Bernstein said.

I called Bernstein seeking advice about how our editorial boards could follow through on our challenge to Florida’s leaders, issued the same day as our Aug. 21 Save Our Water Summit in Bonita Springs.

It’s one thing for state lawmakers to accept the challenge — as Sen. Kathleen Passidomo and Reps. Dane Eagle and Bob Rommel did in front of more than 600 people at the summit.

It’s another thing to advance tangible policy solutions to fix the problem.

The state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force has some early recommendations on how to improve public health responses to toxic algae. They include:

  • Conducting studies to address acute and chronic health effects of exposure to algal toxins.
  • Creation by DEP and the Department of Health of “a transparent and consistent communication plan to inform the public about the potential health impacts associated with exposure to algae and/or algal toxins.”

Lawmakers and DeSantis should advance those reasonable suggestions. Otherwise, they will collect dust on a shelf, like so many recommendations of past task forces.

Additionally, they should consider an idea Bernstein raised to me: Health impact assessments. The World Health Organization describes such assessments as “a practical approach used to judge the potential health effects of a policy, program or project on a population, particularly on vulnerable or disadvantaged groups.”

What if Florida required a health impact assessment for every development, every farm or road built in the state? 

There would be a cost involved, of course. But we must ask ourselves about the long-term costs of not considering public health in policy decisions.

“There’s a profound misconception in many people’s minds that protecting the environment is bad for the economy,” Bernstein said. 

He pointed to the Clean Air Act. That legislation, established in 1970 and later amended, has prevented more than 400,000 premature deaths and hundreds of millions of cases of respiratory and cardiovascular disease, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. 

“The Clean Air Act arguably accelerated economic growth because when you remove the pollution, people don’t get sick, they don’t die prematurely … workers are more productive,” Bernstein said. 

We could make a similar case for curtailing water pollution in Florida. Human health would benefit from more enforceable limits on phosphorous and nitrogen runoff and better strategies for disposal of human waste. 

Bernstein cautioned against blaming public health department officials for Florida’s toxic algae crisis. Public health departments tend to be underfunded and understaffed. 

“The outrage here needs to be redirected and put into a more productive lens,” he said. “There were actions here taken through policy that led this to happen.”

Eve Samples is opinion and engagement editor for the USA TODAY Network-Florida, which includes FLORIDA TODAY, the Naples Daily News, The News-Press (Fort Myers), the Pensacola News Journal, the Tallahassee Democrat, and Treasure Coast Newspapers/TCPalm. Contact her at esamples@gannett.com or @EveSamples on Twitter. 


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