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EPA Sets Limit For Toxic Algae. Environmentalists Worry It's Too High

A boat motors through thick algae blooms in the Caloosahatchee River near LaBelle last summer.
Miami Herald/Pedro Portal
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

New federal limits for dangerous toxins linked to blue green algae in water where people swim, boat and fish could help Florida fight the dangerous blooms.

The recommended criteria is the first ever set by the Environmental Protection Agency for two common toxins found in algae caused by cyanobacteria and would need to be adopted by Florida. But environmentalists say there's a problem: the limits are double what was originally proposed in 2016.

"We believe the 2016 standards supported by a number of state organizations and others were protective and absolutely necessary," said Jason Totoiu, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

This week, the center - along with the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation and Calusa Waterkeeper -asked Florida environmental officials to adopt the original recommended limits.

The EPA took the step of establishing new safety limits for recreational waters as dangerous blooms have increased in Florida, Lake Erie and around the U.S.

Last year, slimy foul-smelling blooms spread down the Calooshatchee river and the St. Lucie estuary, fueled by water from Lake Okeechobee polluted with phosphorus. Similar blooms have occurred regularly since 2005. 

Toxins in algae have been linked to brain diseases and other illnesses. Earlier this year, University of Miami researchers found the toxins in the brains of dead dolphins from Southwest Florida that also showed Alzheimer-like damage.

DEP officials are now considering the new recommendations "including the science and methodology behind their development," spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said in an email.

The state's new blue green algae task force will also review them, she said.

Adopting a limit would not only better protect swimmers, divers and others from polluted water, but expand monitoring. The state now tries to tackle its pollution problem by limiting nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that can fuel blooms from flowing into springs, lakes and other water bodies. But so far, the effort has mostly failed: hundreds of tons of phosphorus continue to flow into Lake Okeechobee, three to four times higher than a limit set in 2000.

"It's certainly necessary, but it doesnt give you that specific performance mesaure that's really needed to hone in on what our ultimate goal is here," Totoiu said. "The ultimate goal is to have clean estuaries and lakes and rivers."

Limiting only nutrients also ignores other conditons that make blooms worse, like hotter water and heavier rain driven by climate change, he said.

Until a decision is made on the new criteria, Miller said the public should steer clear of where blooms are visible. Water sampling results can also be found at the  DEP's web site.

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Jenny Staletovich has been a journalist working in Florida for nearly 20 years.