Palm Beach Daily News
Florida must warn the public of sewage-tainted waterfronts | Commentary
The Florida Legislature has had a hard time maneuvering through the politics of clean water to curb pollution and protect our waterways — and public health.
With great fanfare, the Legislature enacted the “Clean Waterways Act of 2020,” but though penalties were increased, it was light on enforceable regulations to curb pollution, continued to rely on largely voluntary and presumed compliance with state regulations and ignored many of the principal recommendations of the Governor’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force.
But as the Legislature convenes for its 2022 Session, it will have another opportunity, thanks to Sen. Lori Berman of Delray Beach and Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson of Gainesville. The legislators have introduced the “Safe Waterways Act,” Senate Bill 604 and House Bill 393.- ADVERTISEMENT -https://s.yimg.com/rq/darla/4-10-1/html/r-sf-flx.html
The proposal requires, rather than just authorizes, the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) to issue health advisories and, through the network of county health departments, specifically to post and maintain warning notices at “public bathing places” (whether fresh, salt or brackish water) that are used for swimming and other recreational activities and where the water has been verified impaired for fecal indicator bacteria.
The proposed “Safe Waterways Act” also requires FDOH to notify a municipality or county if a health advisory due to elevated bacteria levels is issued for swimming in a public bathing place within the municipality’s or county’s jurisdiction. The department would also be required to maintain such signage until state water quality standards are met.
The FDOH does monitor and post advisories at some coastal beaches and other areas that are designated as “public swimming areas” under the Healthy Beaches Program but not at other areas used by the public for swimming, kayak launches and other recreational activities.
It is inconceivable that Floridians and visitors to our state could be recreating in water contaminated with fecal bacteria.
The Legislature must act on this urgently needed proposal.
It is alarming that contamination of Florida’s rivers and streams by fecal bacteria is so widespread. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, based on years of monitoring, have determined that nearly 9,000 miles of streams and rivers designated for recreation are impaired for fecal bacteria.
This situation has continued for decades with no signage, or inadequate signage, warning the public of the contamination.
High counts of bacteria indicate that the water is not safe. Fecal bacteria are indicators of dangerous pathogens that can cause ailments that include diarrhea, nausea, rashes and eye irritation. Swimming or wading in contaminated water exposes individuals to risk of infections and gastrointestinal illnesses.
The sources of fecal contamination in our waterways are numerous. They include untreated stormwater, leaks from aging or poorly functioning sewage treatment plants, leaching septic tanks, and runoff from fields that contain animal waste.
Occasionally, advisories are posted, but as the law currently stands, there is no requirement in Florida law for any state, county or municipal agency to inform the public of this health threat.
Imposing a duty on government to warn the public of a health threat should not be a heavy lift. Tornado watches and storm warnings are routinely issued by the National Weather Service when dangerous weather activity is possible. Since 1966, the U.S. Surgeon General has affixed health warnings on cigarette packages informing consumers that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema, as well as complications for pregnancies such as fetal injury, premature birth, and low birth weight.
And Gov. DeSantis’ Blue-Green Algae Task Force urged that health advisories be developed by the Departments of Health and Environmental Protection “to inform the public about the potential health impacts associated with exposure to algae and/or algae toxins.”
Of course, policy-makers should focus on the sources of pollution and impose responsibility on polluters to clean up their mess. But both prevention and warning are necessary strategies to protect public health.
Curbing pollution at its source, rather than dealing with its consequences, clearly is both more effective and cost efficient. But in the real world, recognizing the public’s right to know about health hazards and imposing a duty on government agencies to inform the public of a threat constitutes some progress.
If the state continues to fail to enact enforceable measures to curb pollution, or vigorously and effectively enforce current anti-pollution regulations, the least it can do is provide warnings to the public so people can make informed decisions about whether to go in the water or avoid risking their health.
For more information on the campaign for a “Right To Know,” go to right2knowfl.org.
Howard L. Simon, Ph.D., who served as Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida from 1997–2018, wrote this piece for The Palm Beach Post. He is president of Clean Okeechobee Waters Foundation and a board member of Calusa Waterkeeper.