The Phoenix Flyer

Politicians’ pledges to tackle red tide eco-disaster ends at the Legislature with… wait for it… another task force

By: - April 30, 2019 11:27 am

Dead fish killed by red tide in Southwest Florida. WKRC photo

Despite political promises on the campaign trail about solving the massive red tide outbreaks that littered Florida’s shores with dead sea creatures and scared away tourists last year, the state Legislature ended up passing a bill that sets up a task force to study the perennial problem.

The bill specifically names the private Mote Marine in Sarasota as the entity to find ways to “control” and “mitigate” the red tide outbreaks using as-yet unidentified technology. The legislation – which will have to be signed or vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis – funnels $3 million per year to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, earmarked for red tide.

It was sponsored in the Senate by Sarasota Republican Sen. Joe Gruters, who is the statewide chair of the Florida Republican Party.

The legislation ignores a key task: preventing the sewage, manure and fertilizer pollution that makes red tide outbreaks worse (and also fuels outbreaks of toxic blue-green algae in the state’s lakes, rivers, and springs.)

The head of Mote Marine, CEO Dr. Michael P. Crosby, publicly defended former Gov. Rick Scott in his U.S. Senate run last fall after political opponents dubbed Scott “Red Tide Rick” for his failure to deal with the pollution that makes the outbreaks worse. Scott directed more than $2 million to Mote Marine last year, and Mote pitched the idea of using an ozone treatment system on coastal waters and spraying a special clay on red-tide infested sea water.

Under the legislation passed Tuesday and expected to be signed by DeSantis, Mote will have the option of bringing in other research partners, and can leverage state funding with more private dollars.

That’s a strategy used often in Florida. The phosphate industry, for example,  has contributed to scientific research on pollution (phosphate giant Mosaic gives money to Mote Marine.) A worldwide challenge to researchers to tackle blue-green algae outbreaks by the non-profit Everglades Foundation has Scott’s Miracle Gro Foundation (the manufacturer of fertilizers that can spark algae outbreaks) as one of its corporate partners for the “World Water Prize.”

Many longtime experts say it is apparent that red tide outbreaks are made far worse by the millions of gallons of industrial agricultural waste from polluted Lake Okeechobee that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases to the east coast through the St. Lucie River and the west coast through the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf. Among the chief contributors to Lake Okeechobee’s pollution: industrial cattle ranches, large nursery-plant growing operations, turf fertilizers, and treated sewage sludge spread over fields as fertilizer.

Florida only requires agricultural operations to do voluntary pollution controls, called “Best Management Practices.”

“Until landowners are held accountable, there’s going to be continued pollution of Lake Okeechobee,” says Gary Goforth, a consulting environmental engineer who worked for the South Florida Water Management District for over 30 years. And Lake Okeechobee pollution, in turn, provides fuel to worsen red tide outbreaks.

Some scientists privately complain that the state should not be simply handing out tax money to a single institution – Mote Marine – without having a competitive, peer-reviewed grant process to determine which is the best scientific institute for the job. They say that sets a bad precedent because it makes scientific funding political, rather than based on qualifications and experience.

The Florida Chapter of the Sierra Club, which has spent years working on the problem of nasty red tide and blue-green algae outbreaks across the state, told supporters that when the Legislature insists that red tide is a just a “natural problem,” the cost of dealing with the environmental catastrophe is foisted on taxpayers, and the industrial agricultural polluters get let off the hook for paying to clean up the mess.

“Red tide is constantly referred to as ‘naturally occurring,’ supposedly because it has been reported since Spanish explorer days,” says Sierra Club organizing manager Cris Costello. “Is it customary to use this term for rats, e. coli, or sexually transmitted diseases?  Or blue green algae for that matter?  They have been around since Spanish explorer times too. Rats and rat infestations are ‘naturally occurring’ too. But we learned long ago that if you dump garbage in the street and you will get rats! So, we don’t leave garbage in the street. The key is prevention.”

This week, DeSantis announced another new task force, this one to tackle toxic blue-green algae outbreaks that turn waters fluorescent green. The outbreaks are fueled by sewage, manure and fertilizer.

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Julie Hauserman
Julie Hauserman

Julie Hauserman has been writing about Florida for more than 30 years. She is a former Capitol bureau reporter for the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times, and reported for The Stuart News and the Tallahassee Democrat. She was a national commentator for National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition Sunday and The Splendid Table . She has won many awards, including two nominations for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work is featured in several Florida anthologies, including The Wild Heart of Florida , The Book of the Everglades , and Between Two Rivers . Her new book is Drawn to The Deep, a University Press of Florida biography of Florida cave diver and National Geographic explorer Wes Skiles.