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Harm by Piney Point Release Contradicts State Response

What will it take for our state and its governor to finally admit they have had one of the worst preventable environmental disasters under their watch? The disaster at Piney Point was preventable if only the environmental rules had been followed, rules that we the public take for granted are being enforced by regulators.

After an equivalent of 200 tons of nitrogen and 100 tons of phosphate was dumped into Tampa Bay, we’ve reached a tipping point and are now experiencing the highest concentrations of red tide in our state. Downplaying the impact, some of our state’s scientists had this to say a few weeks ago:

"An immediate concern is that you would have highly toxic water going into the bay that would result in fish kills, we did not observe that," said Tom Frazer, Dean of Marine Science at the University of South Florida.

"The concentrations are now back to background levels so there is no great concern that we’re going to have any overabundance of growth of any phytoplankton," said Bob Weisberg, a USF Oceanographer.

In a world where facts seem to be distorted or disregarded, often through a conflict of interests, people have a right to question if the funds that pay our scientists influence their comments and studies. We all know that fertilizer–mainly nitrogen and phosphorus–helps plants to grow.

The red tide organism is a plant floating in the water, also known as phytoplankton. It is usually always present but grows much more rapidly, given the right feeding and conditions. Here we are less than three weeks after scientists stated "no great concern“ for "any overabundance of growth of any phytoplankton,“ with an overabundance of not only red tide but what I call poopy algae, commonly referenced as Lyngbya, in the areas directly within the tidal waters of Tampa Bay.

A majority of people will not be impacted directly by the red tide or massive Lyngbya algae bloom, but those on the water fishing, sailing, and kayaking, or on the bayside of Holmes Beach and the Manatee River, live with a toxic condition that is now known to be harmful to their health, not to mention its disgusting smell. This often makes living conditions so bad outdoors that they become prisoners in their homes.

These Algae can make you sick and animals can get sick or even die from ingesting them. All of this is not making the headlines like when the Piney Point disaster led to an uncontrolled release into our bay and theatened surrounding properties with a 20 foot wall of water requiring an evacuation. However, these algae blooms have all the signs of a slow death by a thousand cuts for our environment.

It is also an economic punch in the gut to those businesses that rely upon a clean environment. From the fishing charters to the restaurants, any reduction of business could end an industry needed for our number one economic engine: tourism.

It is not too late to stop this unnatural explosion of algae and phytoplankton. But elected officials from the governor to our county commission must step up and provide leadership. Too much damage was done under Governor Rick Scott, who dismantled regulations intended to prevent the destruction of our unique environment. While gutting crucial regulations is a great political rally point for those just interested in a sound bite about jobs, it has been well established that protecting our environment does not harm job growth but rather protects and increases employment!

Developers, especially the phosphate mining industry, have all but been granted a free pass when protecting the environment. That has to stop. Carlos Beruff’s Long Bar Point and the Neal’s Perico Island developments are examples of approved projects that ignored our comprehensive plan’s focus on protecting the environment. It does not take a multi-year study to figure out that fertilizer used for our landscaping increases as we continue to develop our coastal area. Not all of it is consumed by the plants, and the excess nitrogen and phosphorus run into our water bodies, including Tampa Bay, Anna Maria Sound, Sarasota Bay, and the Manatee River. Fertilizer helps red tide explode in growth, and also fuels the massive algae blooms we see, such as Lyngbya.

We can implement best practices on fertilizing landscaping and look closely at the total impact of the phosphate mining industry. We should also demand closure plans for all phosphogypsum stacks in Florida. If we have anywhere close to the rain that Houston has had these past three years, we will have uncontrolled breaches of toxic waters from these toxic stacks that could destroy some of our area’s most important environments, including Charlotte Harbor.

We also must hold cities and counties responsible for their sewer discharges. The City of Bradenton was discharging sewage for months that was not treated to accepted standards because they had sewer treatment plant failures–problems that have plagued Bradenton for years but not made public. It is hard to imagine that both the City of Palmetto and Bradenton still use our coastal waters to dump millions of gallons of nutrient-rich wastewater. Our Florida Department of Protection fails to require permits to stop this dumping.

The turning of a blind eye and looking the other way by elected officials like Governor DeSantis needs to end. FDEP needs to be used as a department to actually protect the environment, rather than facilitating the polluting and destroying it. Piney Point is a prime example of turning a blind eye to a state-permitted environmental site. The state allowed for the accumulation of radioactive, acid-laden material to accumulate without requiring a business to have a bond in order to be able to reclaim the site or a way to hold a business accountable after they squeeze out all the profits. We have 24 more stacks without a plan to deal with such a toxic byproduct. Most of these stacks also lack the ability to handle a rainfall event such as the ones we've seen in the Bahamas and Texas from tropical systems.

Our county commissioners and new county administrator have drank the kool-aid and say they believe our state when officials tell them it’s okay to discharge the waters from Piney Point into our aquifer, telling citizens there’s no other choice. The same ignorance saw a toxic site we call Piney Point located out on the edge of Tampa Bay back in the Ô60s. And it’s the same ignorance in permitting phosphate mines without taking a look at the whole process from cradle to the grave. It’s the ignorance from city officials in Palmetto and Bradenton who continue to support a policy of dumping wastewater into the Manatee River and our bay. And it's the arrogance of developers that destroy our wetlands for the sake of a few extra houses and do not implement best practices in their developments for managing fertilizer.

As a society, we know better. But when the dollars for short-term gain drive the decisions of our elected officials, we all suffer. Maybe, just maybe, we need to observe the obvious. We have massive algae blooms early in the summer and a red tide event killing fish centered in Tampa Bay off Piney Point. All of this follows a massive release of excess nutrients from Piney Point into our bay. Piney Point discharges were added to our years of nutrient-rich wastewater discharges and explosive development without best practices for fertilizing all that pretty landscaping.

The end result could be a total collapse of Tampa Bay and Sarasota Bay if we refuse to change course. It happened a few years ago to the Indian River Lagoon, and you’d better believe it can happen here. Take some actions via a simple email to the governor (governorron.desantis@eog.myflorida.com)or your local elected officials. If possible, show up and voice your concerns at a public meeting. What we are seeing is not just nature running its course. It is a man-made problem, and we have the capabilities to live in harmony with nature. The environment is too important to take for granted that it will all work out in the end.

Joe McClash is the publisher of the Bradenton Times. He served on the Manatee County Commission from 1990-2012.


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