Sugar's Blame Game: Deflecting Responsibility for Hyper-Toxic Algae in Lake Okeechobee

Florida DEP announced this week that Lake Okeechobee’s newest algae bloom is hyper-toxic. With microcystin concentrations of 815 micrograms per liter, the water at Canal Point is 80 times more toxic than the World Health Organization’s threshold for warning people not to touch it. Even breathing near the water is unsafe.

Florida DEC confirmed toxin levels 80x higher than WHO warning thresholds at this site

If you only listened to sugar-funded voices like "Glades Lives Matter" or "Sunshine State News," you wouldn't know that Lake Okeechobee's toxic algae problem may already be be making people and pets sick, even killing us.

Instead, you’d hear that "Lake O's mess isn’t Big Sugar's fault,” and Joe Negron's SB10 was a big mistake because the pollution "came from north of the lake." Ordinarily we don't bother to refute every bit of nonsense put out by sugar’s army of spin--that's a waste of time, like "playing Whack-A-Mole," as Senator Jack Latvala said last spring when sugar was working to kill SB10.

In this case, however, we'll take up Big Sugar's "blame game challenge" and set the record straight:

Everglades Restoration is about two related but distinct problems: (1) Broken Plumbing and (2) Pollution. For Everglades Restoration to be successful, both problems must be fixed. For 30+ years and counting, Big Sugar is to blame for blocking the fix for the broken plumbing, and they are also the biggest culprit on the pollution front, both directly and indirectly.

1. BROKEN PLUMBING

The EAA Reservoir project legislated in SB 10 (and called for in the Now or Neverglades Declaration) is a plumbing project. It's the critical fix for the big mistake that was made in the 1960's when the Army Corps blocked the southward flow of Lake Okeechobee with the current dike, shunting the water meant for Everglades National Park to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries instead. If we don't fix that mistake, South Florida is in deep trouble.

Even if the water was as clean as Evian, the broken plumbing would still kill three estuaries. Everglades National Park's 2015 massive seagrass die off occurred because of insufficient fresh water flows--the water was clean, there just wasn’t enough of it. The discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee are polluted, but even clean water dumped in that quantity would kill the seagrass and oysters and turn those estuaries into underwater deserts (as they are now). Healthy estuaries need a balance of fresh and saltwater.

Time is running out to fix the plumbing--it really is “Now Or Neverglades.” One looming threat is massive development plans by Florida Crystals and US Sugar south of Lake Okeechobee. If the EAA turns into sprawl, the broken plumbing will be permanent, and Everglades Restoration will fail.

This site near Canal Point on Lake Okeechobee tested positive for extreme concentrations of algae-borne toxins

2. POLLUTION

For decades, Florida’s sugar industry indiscriminately back-pumped runoff loaded with phosphorus into Lake Okeechobee. That legacy phosphorus remains in the the Lake, fueling every toxic algae bloom that forms on it. Even today, polluted sugar runoff is still back-pumped into Lake O, but only after EAA sugar growers flood out the Everglades first, as they have done twice this year.

But sugar industry propagandists are right about one thing--the water flowing into Lake O from the north is polluted, too. This has also gone on for decades, and is getting worse.

We didn’t know about the links between toxic algae and fatal diseases when we turned Lake Okeechobee into a polluted reservoir to irrigate sugarcane and provide sewer services in all directions. Now that we do, the blame game is over. We need to fix this broken plumbing and stop exposing people to deadly toxins.

We also need to stop the pollution that feeds toxic blooms. The Everglades has mandatory pollution rules thanks to a Federal lawsuit in the 80s, back when Big Sugar was sending phosphorus south with no limits.  It’s far from perfect--Tallahassee has helped Big Sugar stall and weasel out of nearly all cleanup costs so far--but the “Consent Decree” that came from that lawsuit is the only thing stopping a return to the bad old days. Despite the fact they’ve pushed the cost of the clean up onto taxpayers, Big Sugar is actively working to end the “Consent Decree,” which would be disastrous for Everglades Restoration.

Also disastrous for Everglades Restoration is the 2016 Water Policy Bill championed by Adam Putnam. Among other things, this bad bill replaced pollution permits north of Lake Okeechobee with voluntary “best management practices” that aren’t even monitored. In other words, Adam Putnam, with the help of millions in political contributions from Big Sugar, opened the floodgates for even more phosphorus pollution into Lake O from the north. If there is a silver lining to Putnam’s disastrous 2016 water bill, it is that Lake Okeechobee’s increasing toxicity shows us that voluntary pollution rules are a sham, mandatory rules should be reinstated north of Lake O, and Big Sugar’s Consent Decree should not be lifted.

How do we solve this decades-old problem of the subsidy-rich billionaire Fanjuls and Motts spending as much as needed to block the fix for the broken plumbing, and--diabolically--even trying to shift blame by accelerating pollution elsewhere?

The answer may be toxic algae. Government officials can look the other way when the environment or economy gets ruined, but when water management practices endanger over a million people on a recurring basis, it’s time to get serious and fix the problem. This is Flint, MI on steroids.

And keep a mallet handy, because every once in awhile you have to play “Whack-A-Mole.”

Medical research suggests even breathing near this toxic algae bloom could lead to serious long-term health problems

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