Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Can't Trust and Can't Verify: State Environmental Agencies Altering Facts ... by Alan Farago

In the winter of 2015/2016 massive algae blooms spilling from Lake Okeechobee filled Florida waterways.  The toxic stew caused the Florida legislature to act, investing billions, but it may do so on the basis of bad science.

In Stuart last week, at a town hall meeting sponsored by the Treasure Coast Palm, Florida Senate President Joe Negron addressed an important question. A panelist expressed doubt about a massive new reservoir plan to deliver clean, fresh water to the Everglades because of incomplete modeling and science by the state water management district. “Trust but verify", Negron answered, citing Ronald Reagan.

Today, the South Florida Water Management District is delivering its recommendations on that reservoir to the state legislature according to requirements of the 2017 law. Here is an example why the state cannot be trusted. It is drawn from another area of water quality science where fact is being cast aside by the district: the cause of toxic methylmercury in the same badly damaged, polluted waterways the $1.5 to $2 billion reservoir is meant to address.

In December — as people bustled preparing for holidays — a report on methylmercury surfaced from the state. In that report, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District, the state agencies charged with overseeing taxpayer interest in clean, fresh water in South Florida, appeared willing to erase from long-standing scientific record the role of sulfates, caused by farm water runoff, in the local origination of methylmercury.

Science matters. Nutrient pollution from farm water runoff has parted Floridians from what they treasure: from jobs to property values to natural resources. Toxic algae blooms caused by nutrients have a political component. Big polluters, like Big Sugar, want to cast blame in any direction but their profit models based on intensive application of fertilizer and additives like sulfur.

Methylmercury in the same water column as nutrients can be lethal in high concentrations. It is particularly harmful to fetus and delicate organs like the brain.

In December, a draft “Protocol for Monitoring Mercury and Other Toxicants” was forwarded by the state to the US Army Corps of Engineers for comment and expectation that sign-off would be quickly accomplished without controversy. Corps staff forwarded the report to qualified scientists specializing in mercury formation in the Everglades and Florida waterways. These scientists immediately noticed the state intended to literally wipe out a primary driver of toxic mercury formation: sulfates.

The same state legislators who are now considering whether to accept a district recommendation on a billion dollar reservoir to "cleanse" polluted runoff from Lake Okeechobee and sugar farms -- for the purpose of helping devastated estuaries, rivers, and the Everglades -- ought to pay attention.

State environmental agencies are well aware of the threat to species — including humans — from toxic mercury. A recent advisory by the state had 37 warnings to fish eaters about consuming fish from Florida waters.

For the federal scientists who received the District report with its astounding omission, it was as though climate change and global warming had been dropped by the state as causal agents of sea level rise in Florida.

We obtained a copy of a draft letter response by America's foremost experts in toxic mercury formation in Florida. It is now in circulation for signatures.
"We were able to view both earlier versions of this document and the latest “revised” version dated December 2017. While the revised document correctly identifies methylmercury (MeHg) as the form of mercury of most concern and atmospheric deposition being the primary source of inorganic mercury (Hg2+) ..., a major driver of methlymercury (MeHg) production is ignored. Specifically, the important role of sulfate in driving microbial sulfate reduction has been removed from the document."
Sulfur is used by industrial sugarcane producers in the Everglades Agricultural Area to maximize crop yields. When it rains, whatever farmers apply to their fields flows into drainage canals. To maximize their crop yield and to extract the maximum benefit from subsidies in the Farm Bill, they add hundreds of tons of sulfur in the Everglades Agricultural Area. The drainage canals empty into Florida waterways and pollute. As sulfate, this by-product of sugar farming turns out to be a very bad actor. The scientists write:
"Microbial sulfate reduction is the principal anaerobic microbial process for the transformation of deposited Hg2+ into the far more toxic and bioaccumulative methylmercury (MeHg). The role of sulfate in MeHg production is highlighted in earlier versions of this document, but references to the role of sulfate and microbial sulfate reduction have been systematically removed from the revised version. This removal of references to the role of sulfate and microbial sulfate reduction in the production of MeHg from atmospherically deposited Hg2+ is in direct opposition to the overwhelming scientific evidence and scientific consensus of the important role that sulfate plays in this process. The important role of sulfate and microbial sulfate reduction in MeHg production has been has been known of for over 30 years, can be seen in almost any textbook chapter on mercury cycling, and has been demonstrated repeatedly not only in Florida, but worldwide. The MeHg problem in the Everglades (one of the most MeHg-impacted wetlands in the USA) has been demonstrated to be driven by both high atmospheric deposition of Hg2+ and sulfate inputs from contaminated canal water originating in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA).”
Phosphorous is a well known pollutant. It is excreted to the Everglades, and rivers and bays through the application of fertilizer on industrial crops like sugar. The numerical standard on phosphorous pollution was established after decades of litigation pitting the federal government and enviornmentalists against the state and Big Sugar. Phosphorous is the beacon flashing, and the district governing board has already discussed "doing away with" the federal consent decrees that ordered phosphorous reduction in Florida's Everglades. They complain about "federal overreach" without adding that bit about removing science and fact from state obligations to protect public health, welfare and the environment.
"We feel that any valid protocol for monitoring mercury in Florida wetlands must include the role of sulfate. Although the biogeochemistry of MeHg production via sulfate loading to wetlands is complex, it is noteworthy that areas of the Everglades with levels of sulfate < 1 mg/L (close to background) have the lowest levels of MeHg in the ecosystem. Indeed, it has been demonstrated in both lab and field experiments, as well as field observations that span 20 years that when sulfate loading to the ecosystem is cut off, methylmercury (MeHg) levels also plummet.“
In other words: stop the pollution at its source, and nature can heal. That is not rocket science. It is common sense.

In the letter draft, the scientists write, "We will not speculate here as to DEP/SFWMD motivation for removing references to the role of sulfate and microbial sulfate reduction in methylmercury (MeHg) production from this document.”

But here is our bottom line, and it is a message to Senate President Joe Negron and the Florida legislature on the same day that the SFWMD is delivering its recommended option on the multi billion dollar reservoir agreed to by the legislature and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in 2017.

Senator Negron: “trust but verify” is already wishful thinking of a water management district willing to evaporate the local cause of methylmercury in Florida waters.

Before patting the South Florida Water Management District on the back, ask questions to get to the bottom of this morass: can a deep reservoir -- basically a small Lake Okeechobee -- strip half the phosphorous from the water column?

When you can’t verify because facts have been altered -- that is the case with state and methylmercury --, you can’t trust.


PRabbino said...

Well researched and disheartening! Who do we write, call and where is the petition to sign???

Linda Young said...

This needs to be on the front page of every paper in the state. The state is and has been on a very focused mission for almost 20 years to convince the people of Florida that our waters are just fine. Not to worry. There's nothing here to worry about. They are steadily changing water quality standards and state statutes to make it nearly impossible for problems to get documented.

Thank you for bringing this to everyone's attention. I'll share a link with all of my contacts. Linda Young

Marty Baum said...

Thank you Alan, hope to see you at EVCO!