A peril to the public? Lake Apopka might be that. Or perhaps the peril is just in the "restoration" area. Or maybe it isn't.
Last week state officials suspended the lake restoration project and now they warily await scientific data about the nearly 500 birds that have died in and around the soon-to-be-reclaimed former farm area just north of the lake.
Although scientists suspect the birds were killed by organochlorines, this was still not certain at press time, according to the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission. Tests found the chemicals in dead birds, but the tests did not conclude the chemical levels were high enough to cause death.
The St. Johns River Water Management District closed the restoration area Feb. 18, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service completes its tests. Although the federal agency has opened a criminal investigation into possible pollution on the site, the water management district still has only the federal agency's press release, according to spokesman Bill Graf. "The [Orlando] Sentinel has basically said it is pesticides, when Fish and Wildlife has not released its data yet," he says. "And [scientists at] the University of Florida have said they aren't convinced one way or another."
Organochlorines are an ingredient of pesticides that were strewn liberally about the former muck farms for nearly 50 years. DDT, banned since the 1960s, is an organochlorine compound.
Although the water management district spent more than a half-million dollars taking soil samples on the land before the $91 million buyout that shut down the farms, it is possible that a contaminated area or even a dump site escaped their notice.
When spilled or dumped, the chemicals persist in the soil and in the ground and water micro-organisms. Chemicals build up in the fish that eat those tiny plants and animals. Finally, the birds that eat those fish may get a lethal dose.
If that's what happened around the lake, a major cleanup may be in the future. But who would pay for that?
"That's a very good question," says Robert Christianson, St. Johns' director of acquisitions, who negotiated the buyout. According to the sales contract, any environmental hazards on the sites that were unknown at the time of the sale are the farmers' responsibility, he says.
Although the focus has been on birds, organochlorines could harm people, too.
A landmark study of these chemicals was conducted on Lake Apopka in the 1980s by Louis Guillette, a reproductive biologist at the University of Florida who found that the lake's gator population had crashed shortly after a chemical spill there. Later, the alligators born at the lake had sex-organ deformities. In the 1990s, Guillette linked the deformities to the organochlorines. Studies have further blamed organochlorines for breast cancer in humans, falling sperm counts, enlarged prostates, thyroid problems and endometriosis.
Farmworker advocates are trying to interest researchers in studying the worker population for signs of harm from the chemicals, says Jeannie Economos of the Farmworker Association in Apopka. She adds that she isn't surprised by the die-off.
"We were telling them this stuff before this happened," Economos says. "I was at a meeting a long time ago with [Friends of Lake Apopka] at which the St. Johns River Water Management District was presenting to the [FOLA] board of directors their restoration plan. The question of pesticides came up and they said no problem, don't worry about it, we're doing all this soil sampling.
"Someone from FOLA said, ‘Be honest, would you eat fish from Lake Apopka?' [The St. John's engineer] said, ‘Well, what you eat is a personal choice.' He didn't answer the question."
FOLA, which calls itself a grass-roots environmental organization but is closely tied to developers in west Orange, issued a press release this week emphasizing that "no data have been uncovered that verifies a danger to people or that bird deaths were due to these toxins." FOLA president Jim Thomas, a biologist, reiterates his group's support for the buyout and restoration plan and decries "the recent negative publicity" about the cleanup effort.
Last weekend the more than 2,000 pelicans, which had visited the lake in record numbers and faced the brunt of the die-off, left the area.