Florida needs new water quality standards — and they better be tough

Decaying microalgae in the Gulf of Mexico washes up to the shore of Sanibel Island on Friday, Dec. 9, 2022, at Lighthouse Beach Park. Following Hurricane Ian’s landfall in late September and the decline of water quality in the gulf, barrier islands in southwest Florida have been facing fish kills from red tide blooms.

How safe is it to eat fish caught in Florida waters? And how big of a threat are toxic pollutants to Floridians’ health?

If it was still 1992, we might be wearing mullets, listening to “Achy Breaky Heart” and assuming Florida’s water quality standards, threadbare though they were, were keeping us safe.

But times have changed — even if Florida’s standards haven’t.

Earlier this month the federal Environmental Protection Agency rapped the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on the knuckles, warning that Florida was in violation of the Clean Water Act because hasn’t updated its “Human Health Criteria” for 40 toxic pollutants since 1992; the current, comparably low standards don’t reflect the latest science.

And when it comes to another 37 toxic pollutants, Florida has no standards at all. That includes benzene — a solvent and known carcinogen — and toluene, part of the so-called “toxic trio” of chemicals found in polishes, banned in many countries but permitted in the U.S. if listed as on a product’s ingredient list.

The EPA letter, signed by Assistant Administrator Radhika Fox, came on the heels of a petition by the Environmental Defense Alliance and Waterkeepers Florida urging the agency to act.

Fox, in the letter, expressed pointed concern about Floridians who consume locally caught fish. Back in 1992, Florida estimated residents ate an average of 6.5 grams of fish per day.

But in the letter, the EPA notes that national seafood consumption has risen considerably, and Floridians may be eating much more fish now than they were in 1992 — and likely ingesting more toxins as a result.

Part of the problem: Florida doesn’t know how much fish residents are actually eating, there have been no surveys done though there was talk of one back in 2016, when Florida actually approved an update to water quality standards which would have increased the “acceptable” level for more than two dozen toxins, including chemicals released by oil and gas drilling companies, dry cleaning companies, nuclear power plants, wastewater treatment plants and agriculture.

A subsequent lawsuit led the 2016 changes to be scuttled, requiring FDEP to start over. Apparently, that never happened.

So now’s the time for Florida to get cracking.

The state has two alternatives; adopt EPA guidelines, or create its own. We suspect Florida will seek to write its own — and, just as in 2016, make them pathetically weak.

That’s how Florida rolls. And it’s completely unacceptable.

Instead — in a state surrounded by water, where clean water is crucial not just to human health but to our economic prosperity, our very way of life — how about Florida strives to be a leader on this issue?

How about we base decisions on what’s best for the health of Floridians, rather than what polluting industries want?

The EPA is giving Florida 12 months to come up with new standards. Rest assured, VoteWater will be tracking the progress; and we’ll prod decision-makers to do the right thing. 

For Floridians have a right to clean water — not just water that’s “clean enough.”