Slimy environmental crisis upends tight Florida Senate race


In recent days, the race for the US Senate in Florida has become decidedly viscous.

Incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and his Republican challenger, Gov. Rick Scott, have each taken turns blaming each other for toxic blue-green algae blooms plaguing parts of the state that have killed life marine, raised public health concerns and threatened the Sunshine State’s tourism industry. And even as they accuse each other of inaction, the two-term governor and three-term senator have gone out of their way to prove just how committed they are to solving the problem.

In a campaign season dominated by talk of immigration, trade tariffs, the Supreme Court and all things President Trump, Florida’s showdown over an unfolding environmental disaster could prove a problem. crucial in one of the nation’s most closely watched Senate races this fall.

The state has battled severe algal blooms before, including in 2016, when toxic slime swarmed waterways along Florida’s coast, forcing the governor to declare a state of emergency. Then, as now, the state’s largest freshwater body, Lake Okeechobee, was at risk of overflowing due to heavy rains. This led the US Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency charged with monitoring water levels, to open levees surrounding the lake and dump polluted water from runoff into rivers and estuaries that lead to the lake. ‘ocean.

On Florida’s southeast coast, the result was slimy, smelly blue-green-brown algae that shut down businesses and sickened dozens of people. Meanwhile, over more than 100 miles of the southwest coast, a wave of red tide has killed thousands of marine animals, including dolphins, manatees and endangered sea turtles. Scientists continue to search for the underlying causes.

The issue became a focal point of the controversial Senate contest as business owners filed complaints and some families were temporarily kicked out of their homes because of the foul smell.

The blame game hit the airwaves last week when Scott aired a TV ad – titled ‘No more waiting, no more talking, no more seaweed’ – that criticized Nelson and the feds for allowing the releases of contaminated water from Lake Okeechobee that have led to nasty, smelly and potentially dangerous algal blooms in places like the state’s St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers.

“Washington politician Bill Nelson pledged 30 years ago to solve this problem,” Scott’s ad reads. “But Nelson is a talker, not an actor.” The ad ends with Scott saying, “I’m not waiting for Washington.”

Nelson did not take these criticisms quietly. He has visited areas affected by toxic grime, which thrives when warm, nutrient-rich water combines with runoff from farms and other developments, and he blames Scott for systematically dismantling the capacity of the state avoided environmental calamities during his eight years as governor. .

Nelson also unveiled his own ad this week: “Florida’s algae bloom crisis is a man-made crisis, made by this man,” he says, as a photo of Scott appears on the screen. “The water is murky, but the fact is clear. Rick Scott caused this problem.

Frank Jackalone, manager of the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter, said that although Scott tries to pin the blame on Nelson, the governor is solely responsible for the crisis.

“The thing is, Rick Scott had a lot more power to deal with these issues than Bill Nelson did,” Jackalone said. “Bill Nelson has a voice in the US Senate. Rick Scott is the Governor of Florida and had the power to enforce the Clean Water Act in the state. He could have enforced pollution regulations. Instead, it cut funding, rolled back regulations, and eliminated much of its enforcement staff.

During Scott’s tenure, environmental agency budgets were cut sharply. The budget for the South Florida Water Management District, which oversees water issues from Orlando to Key West, has been cut. Many of the more than 400 workers who lost their jobs in the $700 million cut were scientists and engineers whose job it was to monitor pollution levels and algal blooms. Scott also abolished the Department of Community Affairs, which oversaw the development of the state.

Lauren Engel, director of communications for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, noted that blue-green algae is caused by pollution from Lake Okeechobee. Like Scott, she pointed to the fact that the Army Corps – a federal agency – is responsible for the water discharged from the lake.

“The buildup of pollution in Lake Okeechobee has been going on for decades,” Engel said Thursday, calling criticism that Scott’s environmental policies allowed more pollution into the lake and made a bad situation worse “an unfair characterization.”

Blair Wickstrom, publisher of the Florida Sportsman, agreed the problem dates back at least a decade.

“It’s been going on since before Scott, but since he took office there’s been a marked increase in nutrients in Lake Okeechobee and an increase in algal blooms,” Wickstrom said. “It’s not an act of God or not because we can’t stand the rain. It’s the lack of regulation at the state level.

Researchers say they are bothered by the lack of information; Scott’s budget cuts reduced the number of water quality monitoring stations in the state as well as the frequency of water sampling. Scientists say a lack of data prevents them from determining what caused these latest toxic algal blooms and providing the kind of early warning that could prompt authorities to act sooner.

“It would be interesting to understand why this is happening, but we can’t do that with the data we have,” said Karl Havens, a professor at the University of Florida and director of Florida Sea Grant.

Last month, Scott declared a state of emergency for seven counties in Florida, as he said, “to help combat algal blooms caused by Lake Okeechobee water discharges from the Army Corps of Engineers”. He ordered the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to step up water quality testing, implement a multimillion-dollar grant program aimed at helping pay for the cleanups and ordered state agencies to help local businesses affected by the crisis. .

For his part, Nelson implored the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the potential health effects of algal blooms. He also proposed legislation to get tax breaks for small businesses affected by the situation and to make more federal funds available for research into the problem.

“The state is heavily dependent on tourism and outdoor recreation, the fishing industry, real estate and the availability of clean water, so toxic blooms will directly affect some of our economic drivers and most important taxes,” said Florida TaxWatch President Dominic M. Calabro.

In Stuart, on the state’s east coast, Wickstrom closed its publication’s offices for two weeks in July due to an algae bloom. Employees have complained of headaches, itchy eyes, nausea and other ailments.

“I was taking 10 Tums a day,” Wickstrom said. “I’m generally a guy without Tums.”

The bloom has dissipated somewhat this week, he said.

“It’s not so bad when it’s just green,” he said of the seaweed lurking outside his office on the St. Lucia River. “When the green turns to brown, that’s when the putrid smell invades you.”

Lori Rozsa reported from Florida. She is a former Miami Herald editor and former People magazine bureau chief. She is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.


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