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Higher Water Quality Standards or Toxic Seafood?

There are a lot of reasons why states have a vested interest in maintaining high standards for water quality. Florida, with all of its coastline and interior lakes, rivers, swamps, and marshes, just has more reasons than most. Despite that, we are failing. The United States Environmental Protection Agency recently determined that our antiquated water quality standards are not nearly adequate to protect residents from the adverse impacts of pollutants when consuming our seafood.

In recent years, my diet has become primarily pescetarian. I'll enjoy some beef, pork, or foul on rare occasions, but at least 90% of the meat I consume comes from the sea. As I approach 50, I decided that I would try to get my protein from the least calorie-dense sources available and that has meant a diet rich in seafood and eggs. Fortunately, we live in a place where delicious, locally-sourced seafood abounds, as do farm fresh eggs. Unfortunately, our state leaders are not doing nearly enough to make sure that Floridians who consume seafood-rich diets can reap the many health benefits of seafood without having them offset by the dangers of toxic pollutants.

The EPA recently determined that our state's standards for a whopping 40 different toxic pollutants violated the Clean Water Act, that Florida doesn't even have standards for 37 more, and that the existing standards do not reflect the best and most recent science. In a letter released Thursday, the agency announced that Florida's criteria must be changed in order to come into compliance with the law, which dates back to 1972 and was signed into law by the Nixon administration.

There are two issues of primary concern. First, I'm not alone in my love of food from the sea. Floridians eat a lot of seafood. In fact, our state is 11th in the ranking of fresh seafood production, with about 87 million pounds of seafood harvested each year, according to state data.

In its letter, the EPA expresses specific concern for the disproportionate impact that is experienced by those who are eating locally sourced seafood. Florida also bases its standards on projections that its residents consume only 6.5 grams of seafood per day, an old estimate that is clearly at odds with the amounts of seafood that the Florida Department of Agriculture reports being harvested and sold.

There's also the issue of the seafood industry, which, with a dockside value of $237 million annually, is an important sector of our state's economy, even before one considers all of the ancillary commerce from markets and restaurants. As it becomes more apparent that the health benefits of seafood are being offset by pollution, or that people who simply enjoy the taste must risk potential adverse health impacts to do so, that industry is sure to suffer.

We can thank the Environmental Defense Alliance and Waterkeepers Florida for successfully petitioning the EPA on this matter. The agency has given state officials a one-year deadline for creating viable standards for the 37 unregulated pollutants and for changing the criteria for the 40 toxic pollutants it deemed insufficient. However, given the long record of our state government fighting efforts to impose stricter water standards–largely at the behest of the mining and agricultural industries–citizens cannot presume that this issue will be resolved in good faith.

Our state government has become quite good at ginning up populist anger over red meat issues, many of which do not impact the vast majority of residents on any kind of regular or meaningful basis. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly incapable when it comes to actual matters of governance that very much do impact the quality of life of residents on a day-to-day basis.

At its most essential level, government is the vehicle through which society takes care of itself in collective ways in which markets and the principle of rational self-interest simply do not suffice. Pollution is one of the best examples of such an issue. History has clearly demonstrated that, time and again, corporations will dispose of waste byproducts by the cheapest and most efficient means available, simply because there is no direct reward for not doing so. The folly in under-regulation of pollution is not experienced until long after the fact, and the price is rarely paid by the perpetrator but rather spread out among society at large.

One of government's primary responsibilities is to protect citizens' quality of life by putting reasonable limits in place to balance commerce and its impact on the greater society. When it comes to Florida's waterways, we have for far too long allowed that balance to be defined by those who profit from it remaining skewed in their favor, while the rest of us who lack the political capital to influence those who decide the rules pay the price.

That is why residents cannot sit back and trust that the EPA's intervention will result in a timely solution to a serious problem. Clean water is not a partisan issue. Contact the governor and your state legislators and tell them we demand that our officials be better stewards of the valuable public asset that is our waterways. It is past time that Florida, with its bountiful aquatic food resources, become a leader in state water quality standards.

Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County governmentsince 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University, where he earned a degree in Government. He later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Clickherefor his bio. His 2017 novella, Sacred Hearts, is availablehere.


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