Criminal Charges for Silence on Toxic Algae?

By Allie Preston

Michigan Health officials are up against manslaughter charges after knowingly withholding information from the public about contaminated water and potential effects on human health. Anybody else feel like they’re in the Twilight Zone? The ACLU says the same thing happened here.

Florida’s “Toxic Summer of 2016” made national news featuring mats of slime that contaminated waterways, massive losses of sea life, and a surge of emergency room visits. ACLU Florida released a report highlighting the human health implications of the 2016 algae bloom and more important, the lack of initiative by state officials to warn residents. Tainted Waters is a scathing accusation that administrative policies lacked transparency and that access to information on public health threats was screamingly inadequate for emergency situations like last summer’s toxic discharges.

ACLU Report: Tainted Waters - Florida failed to warn citizens about algae toxins

Research linking cyanobacterial exposure to potentially grave health impacts suggests a Flint-like nightmare that may have only just begun to unfold in Florida. It raises the question of why the discharge of contaminated water, where the USGS discovered 28 species of potentially toxin-producing cyanobacteria–many associated with fatal liver damage–did not warrant faster, more effective public warning. (Never mind why it was allowed in the first place.) In fact, there appeared to investigators to be a disturbing lack of urgency on the part of state officials to address the crisis at all.

An official health warning wasn’t issued by the Florida Department of Health until late June–months after the discharges started. Toxicity measurements were infrequent, their quality was debatable, and testing for airborne toxins was never conducted at all. No moral responsibility to alert citizens of their increased risk for Alzheimer’s Disease, ALS, Parkinson’s Disease, or liver cancer seemed to exist.The locks remained open. For more than 100 days.

This is hardly the only time that Florida state agencies have dragged their feet over alerting the public about water contamination. The public remained largely unaware when toxic algae was reported on the shores of Lake Okeechobee during discharges in 2015. The locks were quietly closed for just a few days before “no other option” forced discharges to resume at normal levels.

In August of 2016, DEP officials waited three weeks to inform the public of 215 million gallons of radioactive water falling into the aquifer through a sinkhole at a Mosaic fertilizer plant. The agency reminded the Miami Herald it hadn’t broken the law, which gives the DEP 30 days to notify neighbors after a business reports a spill beyond its property. So the state’s response to people worried they might have been drinking poison for weeks: It’s okay, our lawyers say we weren’t required to warn you. (Ask Michigan health officials how this worked out.) 

Florida’s track record and the ACLU report are damning, but debating warning procedures is absurd when people are being knowingly poisoned. SFWMD and the Army Corps are now aware–everyone is–that discharges from Lake Okeechobee expose downstream communities to elevated risks of life-threatening diseases. No moral code can let that stand; zero toxic discharges is the only defensible goal when human life is at stake. Joe Negron echoed this conclusion on the day the EAA reservoir was signed into law. The people of Florida deserve to hear it from every state politician. It should be the objective pursued with the greatest ambition while implementing SB10, and in all phases of Everglades restoration moving forward.  

In Flint, the long-term effects of lead poisoning and other contaminants won’t be fully known for a generation, but ultimately the legal system decided one death was a morally unacceptable price for officials’ inaction. In Florida, officials haven’t yet decided how many cancer clusters, how many ALS cases and how many liver failures are acceptable in sacrifice for a bumper sugar crop.