ACLU: Florida failed to warn public of danger during toxic algae bloom crisis

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SCREENCAP VIA REBECCA FATZINGER
Florida health officials failed to adequately warn the public of the dangers associated with last summer's toxic blue-green algae bloom on the Treasure Coast, according to a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The algae scum that caked the St. Lucie River and its estuary was so thick that local residents started calling it guacamole. Aside from clogging the waters, the report says it produced a noxious smell that caused "burning eyes, headaches, flu-like symptoms, respiratory problems, rashes." People went to the hospital for their symptoms while others evacuated from their waterside properties or stayed inside. Some even wore breathing masks.

"State agencies were slow to respond to the outbreak last summer and to release information and warnings to citizens," says the report by former Palm Beach Post investigative journalist John Lantigua. "Critics say the failures of the state agencies stem from policy priorities originating in Tallahassee. Namely, that protecting the environment and public health has increasingly taken a back seat to economic interests, restraining and compromising the work of state scientists."

Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic
Society, says in the report that even though the tainted water had reached the St. Lucie lock and dam by May 13, 2016, there was no official warning from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection or the South Florida Water Management District. By that time, guacamole-like substance had all the signs of being toxic algae, which secretes a substance called microcystin that can potentially cause liver damage and lead to liver cancer. Perry and others argue state scientists did not adequately test the waters for levels of microcystin and didn't warn the public about the danger until June 24. On June 29, Gov. Rick Scott finally declared a state of emergency for Martin and St. Lucie Counties.

"They waited until weeks after the bloom to warn people," says Jacqui Thurlow Lippisch, former mayor of Sewall's Point. "They are not doing their jobs. They are certainly not doing their jobs with the tenacity they should."

The report says residents, scientists and environmental advocates partly blame the Scott administration for cutting the amount of DEP employees and gutting water management districts.

"This is a cover up of a public safety issue," says Anne Scott, a former Martin County commissioner, in the report. "It is a concerted failure to warn the public of the dangers."

You can read the entire ACLU report by investigative journalist John Lantigua here.

UPDATE: The Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health have responded to the ACLU report, saying that their agencies did keep the public informed during last summer’s toxic algae bloom crisis.

DEP spokesperson Dee Ann Miller says the state has an "extremely robust system" for keeping people informed regarding environmental events. Last summer, the department says it issued daily press releases and notices to keep the public and media informed, including maps, graphics and data. Miller says in a statement:
"DEP and Florida’s water management districts frequently monitor Florida’s water quality, and routinely collect algal bloom samples as soon as they are observed as part of this effort. In addition, staff can be deployed to take additional samples in response to reported blooms – whether from a citizen, other response team agencies or other sources.

To keep residents and visitors informed, DEP has a website where it posts the dates and locations of samples collected. Test results are added as they become available. Last year, DEP also proactively sent algal bloom updates and sample results to the more than 10,000 subscribers who signed up to receive this information via email.

To make it easier for residents and visitors to report algal blooms, last year DEP launched a toll-free hotline and online system for reporting algal blooms. Additional staff were also deployed to more rapidly survey and sample areas impacted by the algal blooms last year. A total of 225 samples were collected and processed by DEP’s laboratory in response to reported blooms as well as the state’s increased sampling efforts during the 2016 algal event.

DEP collected samples at locations that best represent the overall condition and water quality of the bloom-affected water. Most samples are processed in DEP’s nationally certified lab and the results are shared with the Department of Health and posted on our website for the public. Persistent blooms are routinely monitored and re-tested."

Miller says the state agency will continue work with federal, state and local agencies to respond quickly and efficiently to algal blooms. Mara Gambineri, spokesperson for DOH, says the department takes its duty to keep Florida residents and visitors informed very seriously.

"The health and well-being of our residents and visitors is our top priority and DOH immediately began informing Floridians about last year’s algal event upon receiving confirmation by DEP," she says. "We continue to provide important health information to residents, visitors and health care providers about these blooms."

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