In a recent post of the Sierra Club list serve, Mr. Fink writes about phosphorous (P) and sulfur. Reducing phosphorous in the Everglades has consumed massive bandwidth of the public sector, including the recent announcement of a forced settlement -- by federal litigation the organization I represent as volunteer board president, Friends of the Everglades -- of nearly $1 billion. That is mainly taxpayer dollars being used to clean up Big Sugar's polluting practices.
Fink, however, points to sulfur -- used by sugar farmers as an additive to soil to maximize the productivity of its production -- as a much, much more dangerous and politically charged pollutant: sulfur in minute quantities measured in parts per million is an essential chemical component in the formation of the highly toxic form of mercury that deforms creation.
Phosphorous kills the Everglades and, as a component in fertilizer, is a major contributor to the decline of water quality around the state of Florida. Unsurprisingly, the Florida GOP is mobilized to block the federal government from imposing tough limits that might clean up Florida's waters. But a cone of deep silence -- except in the science communities -- has descended on sulfur.
The reason is that Big Sugar knows -- indeed it is common knowledge among those who care -- that investments that can reduce phosphorous in polluted water are useless against sulfur. So for years, there has been foot dragging on the sulfur/mercury connection. That foot dragging includes some of the most important environmental organizations in Florida.
There are days when I believe that mercury pollution in Florida is as prevalent as lead poisoning was in ancient Rome: both phenomena account for the dumbing-down of the public realm. But then there are other days when I believe that people are just stupid, naturally, and that if mercury poisoning is our fate, then so be it. That point of view, however, is hard to reconcile with the pain and suffering of families burdened by a child's developmental or learning deficit or, even, deformed arms or legs.
We don't measure that level of pain, the same way we don't measure sulfur coming off Big Sugar fields south of Lake Okeechobee. Mr. Fink is right: sulfur is the third rail of Florida politics, and that is why most Floridians don't even know about it. Click 'read more' for Larry Fink's more detailed assessment:
"As I understand it, EAA farmers have cut down their use of P and release of P using various BMPs, and are frequently net consumers, not exporters, of Lake Okeechobee P, unless they are fudging the flow and concentration data, which is possible, but unlikely. They are, however, net exporters of a variety of other micronutrients and pesticides. Among the micronutrients that should be of greatest concern is sulfur in the oxidized form of sulfate. It distorts the downstream carbon cycle by stimulating sulfate-reducing bacteria activity under anaerobic conditions and increases the methylation of inorganic mercury in wet and dry atmospheric deposition up to the point of sulfide inhibition, but sulfide is toxic to plants and animals in its own right.
The reduction in excess P could mitigate the effect of excess S by reducing the area covered by anaerobic sediments in the downstream environment, but this benefit could be retarded by the presence of excess P in the sediment reservoir, which is also likely to retard the recovery of the ecosystem from eutrophic conditions. There is now no requirement in any f the restoration plans to remove or stabilize that legacy excess P in the sediment reservoir, ostensibly because it would seriously disturb the ecosystem we are trying to restore, but more likely because it would be extremely expensive.
The EAA farms are also net exporters of the herbicides they apply to their crops, especially atrazine and hexazinone. When I pointed out to officials at the first TOC meeting that the presence of atrazine may be suppressing some of the effect of P on algae growth, thereby distorting the results of our laboratory and field bioassays of nutrient stress, I was told I was unnecessarily complicating matters and to deal with one problem at a time.
When I suggested to one of the scientists that worked for me that we needed to test the for sulfide toxicity to sawgrass as the primary rather than secondary cause of its retreat and replacement with cattail, I was told I was trying to turn a nutrient problem, which I knew nothing about, into a toxicity problem, which I knew next to nothing about, and there was no way that was going to happen. The irony was that this scientist had obtained a M.S. studying sulfide toxicity to cattail, so that individual was the right person at the right time to screen for sulfide toxicity, but I had no influence over the academic research program at SFWMD, so the sulfide screening bioassays were never conducted on my watch. It took another 15 years to get the professor that individual studied under to conduct the sulfide toxicity bioassays I requested.
At the sulfide concentrations present in ambient pore water in the most impacted regions of WCA-2A, the results of the laboratory studies suggest that one would expect to observe sulfide toxicity to sawgrass to be manifest in the field. But the dosing of the mesocosms with higher than ambient sulfate concentrations in regions where the pore water sulfide is high enough to produce a toxic effect is not producing the toxic effect observed in the laboratory. However, it takes awhile for the dosed sulfate to build up to toxic levels as free sulfide, especially in the presence of high dissolved iron, which is also present in excess in the impacted Everglades as a consequence of stormwater runoff from the EAA.
The bottom line is that it s more complicated than just P, but both the EAA farmers and the officials tasked with designing, building, operating, and permitting the stormwater runoff treatment systems want to keep it simple, because once it gets complicated, and you have to deal with all of the other pollutants in EAA runoff, including and especially sulfate and its its effect on the mercury cycle, all hell breaks loose, because sulfate is not as readily removed by the STAs at parts per million concentrations as P is at parts per billion concentrations. So taking sulfate seriously would shut down sugar cane farming as we and they know it and force the switch to inundation crops such as rice or aquaculture, and that neither the sugar cane farmers nor the officials who were elected or appointed to their positions to protect sugar cane farming interests can abide.
Sulfur is the third rail of South Florida politics. Touch it, and suffer the consequences. I did, and I did. The jolt was lethal to my career. Now I'm reincarnated to finish the job I started. Since December 2006, the Everglades Forever Act says stormwater runoff cannot cause or contribute to a violation of Water Quality Standards for pollutants other than P, after the usual considerations are given for mixing zones, other moderating provisions, and/or site-specific alternative criteria. Let's hold FDEP to hold SFWMD to hold the EAA farmers to that.
(f) EAA best management practices.—
4. As of December 31, 2006, all permits, including
those issued prior to that date, shall require implementation of additional
water quality measures, taking into account the water quality treatment
actually provided by the STAs and the effectiveness of the BMPs. As of that
date, no permittee’s discharge shall cause or contribute to any violation of
water quality standards in the Everglades Protection Area.
The revised Statewide Mercury Total maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Report is now open again for public comment. The next local hearing is this Thursday in Ft. Lauderdale. http://www.dep.state.fl.us/water/tmdl/merctmdl.htm
Larry E. Fink, M.S.
Waterwise Consulting, LLC