Water pollution is a political event. We know this in Florida through the stage-managed destruction of laws intended to protect the public health from pollution.
Consider the effort to regulate excess fertilizer and nutrients in a state where sugar and cattle industries dominate the political landscape. Hollow laws — like those regulating nutrients and other chemicals invading Florida’s waters — are like shells where incumbents hide in plain sight.
In Florida, when politics are added to pollution, a chain reaction occurs. This reaction of politics to Florida pollution — whether in the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, or the rivers and estuaries used as toxic dumping zones -- shifts costs straight to the backs of taxpayers, residents and visitors.
Here are two stories of people who became very ill after Florida waters touched them. These tales of suffering pass like dark clouds over the underlying trauma to Florida and the health, welfare and safety of citizens.
Visitors come to Florida for the water and the warm climate like Paula, a 59 year old mother from Sioux County, Iowa, and Mike, the 23 year old commercial fisherman from Martin Couny whose anonymity and privacy I promised in order to tell their stories.
That Florida waters are unsafe should rattle citizens, businesses and government to action. In 2008, the federal US Environmental Protection Agency — a favorite scapegoat of the conservative right — was sued by environmental groups, led by Earthjustice, to enact tough nutrient pollution standards for a state that won't.
The need was clear, as it had been for decades. In 2000, the state and federal government agreed to restore the Everglades, based on a hard and fast numeric standard for one component of water pollution: excess phosphorous. It wasn't just the Everglades. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection first sounded the alarm about the dangers of toxic algae outbreaks in a 2000 scientific report.
Nearly as soon as the ink was dry on the Everglades pact, Big Sugar launched an effort to undermine the standards. In 2003 Big Sugar flooded the state legislature with lobbyists and with the support of then Governor Jeb Bush passed a new law lowering the pollution compliance standard and pushing compliance to the indefinite future. Native Americans — the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians — and a grass-roots group, Friends of the Everglades, sued.
By 2008, it had become clear to clean water advocates that the State of Florida was using bluster and the shield of “states’ rights” to inhibit tough, numerical standards on toxics; protecting special interest insiders like Big Sugar, cattle farmers, and municipalities that externalized costs of growth to keep water rates low to benefit big developers and real estate-related industries.
Paula is from Rock Valley, Iowa, a town of 3700 people. Her husband is a farm equipment dealer. They both were born and raised within 17 miles of where they live today, surrounded by fields of corn, beans, some alfafa and oats. Hog and dairy farms dot the landscape. For the past decade, they have been repeat visitors to a resort near Fort Myers on Florida’s west coast.
Paula and her husband, married for forty years, are part of the annual winter migration that supports Florida’s tourism based economy. Today, nine months after her visit to the Fort Myers area, Paula is tethered to a portable IV line delivering super strength antibiotics to a stubborn infection. This is the first time her story has been told.
Many people come to Florida in the winter to relieve their aches and pains. In July 2015, she had been diagnosed with diabetes. Her arm and shoulder had been aching, too. After visiting Florida, Paula got even sicker.
For nearly a decade the couple visited the same resort. She had heard about the pollution pouring out of the Caloosahatchee River from Lake Okeechobee. The water on the beach when they arrived in March was so dirty that she and her husband agreed they would only swim in the hotel pool.
A recent report on nutrient pollution flowing into Lake Okeechobee disclosed that for the past twenty years, there has been no reduction in nutrients — from fertilizer and animal waste and stormwater runoff — despite state policies specifically targetting nutrient reduction. Excess nutrients in the water column provide a fertile growing zone for dangerous bacteria.
“The shorelines had a lot of black muck,” Paula said. “The people at the resort told us it was fine, even though the beach and water did not look normal to us. Still I like shell hunting. That’s my favorite thing to do. Every day we walked the beach. Lots of time we would be in a foot of water. I cut my foot on a shell.”
When Paula cut her foot, she and her husband knew what to do. They went straight back to the hotel, washed her foot, and put a band-aid on it.
In 2009, the EPA made a determination that numeric nutrient criteria are necessary in Florida. Special interest insiders threw a fit. They called it “federal overreach” and derided the Obama administration. The firestorm helped elect Gov. Rick Scott and US Senator Marco Rubio in the 2010 election cycle. Both rode the wave of Tea Party anti-government sentiment that boosted the fortunes of legislators like state representative Matt Caldwell, a Big Sugar apologist whose district is bisected by a river polluted by his funders.
Two weeks after returning to Iowa, Paula’s arm turned fiercely painful. “By Sunday night I was feeling awful and by next morning I could hardly move.” Her husband rushed her to the doctor. "I was in excruciating pain. It had migrated to my clavical bone.”
Paula thought she had slept on her shoulder wrong and impinged a nerve. Her physician couldn’t find anything wrong and recommended she see a specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, about a four hour drive away. It took six weeks for Paula to get the appointment.
At the Mayo Clinic, a specialist showed her the results of a MRI and told Paula, “You need surgery right away to clean out the diseased bone." A week later, the biopsy results came in: she had contracted internally a common skin bacterial infection that can turn deadly. Her orthopedist would not venture how she had contracted her infection.
On April 22, 2011 the Florida Department of Environmental Protection filed a petition asking the EPA to withdraw its January 2009 determination that numeric nutrient criteria are necessary in Florida. "In a cover letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Department of Environmental Protection head Herschel Vinyard wrote that the state of Florida remains “committed to addressing excess nutrients pollution” and requests that the EPA restore the responsibility of nutrient management back to the state.” (Sept. 12, 2011, Florida Independent)
The period of Michael's infection was much shorter. In July 2016, the healthy, young commercial fisherman nearly lost his leg to a stubborn and dangerous MRSA infection contracted through a cut in his knee.
Michael fell in love with fishing when he was three years old. His grandfather would take him fishing to a lake in the Orlando area where his family lived. Later, his parents would take the family on long weekends to the beach in Martin County, on Florida’s east coast just above Palm Beach. He never wanted those trips to end. That’s how much the water drew him in. When Michael was twelve, his family moved from Orlando to Martin County, making his dream come true. He fell in love with the St. Lucie River and Indian River Lagoon. There is nowhere else he would rather be and nothing else he would rather do than fish.
“The first time I went I was fishing in the Indian River by the old Jenssen Beach Causeway. The water was beautiful and there was more than enough fish. On any tide you could see six to eight feet visibility, and the closer you got to the inlet, the visibility improved. All I want to do is to be on the water and fish.” Michael's voice quavered. “2013 was the first year I remember the St. Lucie River went bad because of the discharges. Everything died. Every species. Thousands of snook. Live oyster beds that helped filter the water, destroyed. The water quality and sea life never returned after the Lake Okeechobee releases in 2013, but what we are seeing now is even worse. How many years will it take to come back? I don’t know.”
In July, Michael was fishing with a friend. He had a scratch on his knee. The water on the beach was clear when they arrived, but turned green with pollution out of the St. Lucie River after an hour or so. “I told the guy I was with, ‘we got to get out of here’”.
"Four to five days later I noticed some pain in my right knee and then it started swelling up real bad.” At a local hospital he was initially diagnosed with a staph infection, but the knee turned ugly red so fast that his doctors worried he had a flesh eating bacterial infection, called Vibrio Vulnificus. He was finally diagnosed with MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. "I was hospitalized for six days. It was terrifying. They were talking about me losing my leg if I couldn’t stop the infection.” Doctors put Michael on four different antibiotics intravenously for 24 hours a day. Six weeks later, he is still taking two.
Neither Paula nor Michael are “environmentalists”. The State of Florida, incumbent legislators, Gov. Rick Scott, Senator Marco Rubio, and industry lobbyists have no answer for them. Victims like return tourists and commercial fishermen are not the “wealthy environmentalists” used for political target practice by special interests who dominate legislatures and regulatory agencies like the South Florida Water Management District.
In fact, Big Sugar and other polluters have been as successful in marginalizing environmental agendas as Big Tobacco and Big Oil. It is only when incontrovertible evidence and catastrophe strikes that the environment rises to the top of voters’ concerns.
For polluters, matters related to government regulation are right at the top of their priority list. It is hard to argue, however, that “states versus federal rights” matter when an intravenous PICC attached to your arm is keeping you alive because government couldn’t effectively regulate the toxics that poisoned you.
Today, months after her Florida vacation, Paula is being treated with intravenously-delivered Ceftriaxone, sold under the trade name Rocephin. It is an antibiotic useful for the treatment of a number of bacterial infections including; pneumonia, ear infections, skin infections, urinary tract infections, gonorrhea, pelvic inflammatory disease, sepsis, bone and joint infections, intra-abdominal infections, and meningitis. It is also used preoperatively to reduce the risk of postoperative infections.
Michael had never heard of anyone else getting MRSA. He had never even heard of the infection, but he is certain where it came from and when.
The EPA has estimated that nearly 2,000 miles of the state’s waterways are affected by an excess of nutrients, which is unsurprising considering the lack of standards governing nutrient pollution. Current regulations are based on a “narrative” standard, which simply states that “in no case shall nutrient concentrations of body of water be altered so as to cause an imbalance in natural populations of flora or fauna.”
Now, a new proposed set of standards to limit the waste entering Florida waterways — dubbed numeric nutrient criteria — have become the source for one of Florida’s fiercest political battles.
Nearly every major political figure and industry group in the state has publicly criticized them. Most of the criteria’s detractors argue that they would be too costly for a state still struggling with the effects of recession.
But what is the cost of not implementing them? (Florida Independent, "The Cost of Doing Nothing: How Nutrient Pollution Harms Small Business, May 13, 2013)
I asked Michael if he had health insurance. There was a pause. Then, “No.” He guesses his medical expenses will cost more than $40,000. Then I asked, what the government could have done to protect the water he loves.
“The state isn’t doing anything,” Michael answered vehemently. “They are completely ignoring the facts right in front of their faces. They are ignoring people’s health. Our governor just refuses to mention water quality because he knows he is the source of the problem.” I asked about Big Sugar, the industry that is among Gov. Rick Scott’s and Senator Rubio’s largest campaign contributors.
“The sugar industry,” he says without hesitation, “Needs to go to hell quite frankly.” I asked if he had any advice for fishermen, boaters or visitors to Florida’s beaches. “If the water smells weird or looks weird or if anything seems a little off, avoid all contact with the water. In all honesty, until they change what they are doing now, I wouldn’t even go in the water.” That’s from someone who loves Florida’s waters more than anything in the world.
Paula loves shelling in on the beaches near Fort Myers, but she has no plans to return to Florida anytime soon. “My shoulder and clavical looked in the MRI liked moths came in and chewed it away”.
Tragically, Florida’s environmental protections are also look like they were eaten by moths.
For decades Florida’s polluters have claimed they are doing their fair share to clean up pollution. In 2009, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated industries of Florida and the GOP leadership fought against clean water rules by the federal government, pounding the table that it was about time states’ rights took over from the heavy hand of federal government. They parroted the same line in the Florida legislature in 2015, just last year, when the Republican legislature — at the urging of Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam and support of Gov. Rick Scott — passed a new water quality law that further weakens already weak standards.
Michael and Paula’s illnesses raise other questions. The state should require a detailed and public database of severe infections from contact with Florida water. That such data is bad for business is underscored by the way the state of Florida Department of Health continues to sit on evidence that rare pediatric cancer clusters exist in Florida, including one in Miami-Dade and one in the area of Lake Okeechobee.
Until voters take command and insist on accountability, it is hard to see any hope for change on the horizon. Tourists and residents will continue to get sick. The costs will continue to shift from polluters to taxpayers. And Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Chamber of Commerce will continue to insist everything needs to be kept in perspective.
Their “perspective” is not just a matter of politics: in Florida it can make you, your family and friends very, very ill. If voters can summon the will of activists for clean water, then in November politicians like US Senator Marco Rubio — whose political capital has been earned by sheltering Big Sugar — will be gone. For others, the memory of illnesses and what is happening to Florida's waterways will not be so easy to erase.