Dear Friends of Florida’s Waters:
As the nightmare in Flint, Michigan continues to unfold, I wonder if it is only a matter of time before we have similar drinking water crisis situations in one or more Florida cities. We already have short-term drinking water emergencies across the state and have had reported and unreported emergencies over time. According to government reports, data on organic quality of water from the state’s principal aquifers are limited; nevertheless, occasional incidences of organic contaminants that may affect human health and welfare are a reality. Consider just a few examples that come to mind:
- Escambia County – The Emerald Coast Utility Authority (ECUA) was awarded the title of having the dirtiest water in the nation a few years ago. The utility admits to having 45 unregulated chemicals in their drinking water. The most prevalent organic contaminants are dry-cleaning solvents and leaking underground gasoline storage tanks. All 32 wells owned by the ECUA are contaminated and have carbon filters on them, which do not completely remove all pollutants.
In 2009, ECUA sued Solutia (formerly Monsanto) chemical company in federal court, claiming that the company contaminated all of ECUA’s 32 wells with PFOA or PFOS toxic chemicals. ECUA’s expert testified that there could be a correlation between the high birth defect rate in Escambia County, specifically for musculoskeletal and heart defects, and PFOS and PFOA exposure. Just this week the US EPA has told residents of Hoosick Falls, New York that they should not drink or cook with water from the public water supply because of the chemical PFOA in the village water system.
The federal judge in the ECUA case, dismissed the case because the chemicals, though known to be dangerous carcinogens, are unregulated in Florida and no harm could be shown. People in Escambia County have been told, “not to worry” because as ECUA executive director Steve Sorrel was quoted in the media saying, “If it doesn’t violate the law, I don’t really pay much attention to it.”
- Dairy country – In predominantly agricultural regions of Florida, the frequency of drinking water wells contaminated by nitrates exceeds the national frequency (2.4%) found in the EPA survey. Of 3949 drinking water wells analyzed for nitrate by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, (FDACS) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, 2483 (63%) contained detectable nitrate and 584 wells (15%) contained nitrate above the EPA MCL (maximum contaminant level). Of the 584 wells statewide that exceeded the MCL, 519 were located in the Central Florida Ridge citrus growing region, encompassed primarily by Lake, Polk and Highland Counties.
In the Suwannee basin, where most of the state’s CAFO dairies are located, high nitrate levels in drinking water wells are common. The dairies are allowed to store their waste in unlined lagoons (some directly connecting with sink holes and the aquifer) and then spray onto or sheet-flow across fields. In our sandy soils, the highly polluted water quickly reaches the aquifer.
- Caloosahatchee – The Olga water treatment plant has been shut down a number of times due to harmful and/or toxic algal blooms in the Caloosahatchee River, most recently in 2015. It serves east Lee County and North Ft. Myers. The algal blooms are caused by the high nutrient levels in Lake Okeechobee waters which flow into the Caloosahatchee and the St Lucie rivers.
- South Florida aquifer contamination – In South Florida, 20 of the nation’s most stringently regulated disposal wells failed in the early 1990s, releasing partly treated sewage into aquifers that may one day be needed to supply Miami’s drinking water. The state responded by asking EPA for a variance to the Safe Drinking Water Act for South Florida so the disposal practices could continue. EPA adopted a rule specific to Florida that made it possible for facilities to continue injecting into zones without confinement.
So what happens in Florida when a community water supply becomes contaminated? Whose responsibility is it to do something? According to state law, here’s the next steps:
- Section 62-550.521 of the Florida Administrative Code requires water suppliers to notify the FDEP of confirmed unregulated contaminants in the water. After notification, the FDEP and the State Health Officer will decide whether the unregulated chemical presents an unreasonable risk to health and accordingly decide whether to direct corrective action including additional monitoring.
Are we taking the safety of our water supply for granted? Are we placing too much trust in our local, state and federal officials who are supposed to be trustworthy and honest, always keeping the public interest at the forefront of their decisions?
This week in the Tampa Bay Times we see an article (http://home.tampabay.com/news/environment/water/clearwater-to-be-pioneer-in-injecting-treated-wastewater-into-aquifer/2261624) about the City of Clearwater moving forward with a new “Toilet to Tap” system. If you read this article, what the City of Clearwater is proposing sounds very reasonable. However, there is one major problem that immediately comes to mind:
The state and federal government do not regulate most toxic chemicals that are in our drinking water. They simply will not set pollution limits for dozens of chemicals that are known to be in our water and are known to have human health consequences. Some of these chemicals are pharmaceuticals, some industrial, man-made toxics, some naturally occurring, and some are known to cause cancer.
But because these chemicals are not regulated by the state of Florida, they go unabated and people are told that all is well because the water meets standards.
So I am not ready to accept the state’s assurances that any water in Florida is safe to drink or even to fish and swim in when we know that so many chemicals are ignored.
I would like to ask each of you to contact your elected officials and let them know that you want our waters protected from dangerous chemicals. Here are a few talking points to guide your communications:
- There are 118 human-health based toxics that need to be regulated in Florida for Class I, II, and III waters. Florida regulates only 36 of these chemicals and those regulations have not been updated in 25 years.
- All chemicals that are showing up in drinking waters need to be regulated and controlled.
- All fracking for oil and gas should be banned in Florida because it would involve secret chemicals being injected underground. This will further threaten our drinking water supplies since more than 90% of our drinking water comes from underground sources.
Please feel free to share this with your friends. It’s not cheerful news, but we all need to be informed. Flint Michigan is a harsh reminder to all of us that many elected officials don’t care about our health and well-being. If any of you are following the legislature, then you know we have lots of elected officials there who obviously don’t care what is best for their constituents. Maybe in the 2016 election, we will be able to get better people elected to office in Florida.
For all of Florida’s waters,
Linda Young, Executive Director
Florida Clean Water Network
PO Box 5124
Navarre, FL 32566