Following a closed-door meeting with federal, state and local agencies on harmful algal blooms, Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney held a second roundtable meeting Friday that was open to the media and the public.
The hour-long meeting at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida brought together environmental advocates, scientists, environmental and land use attorneys and other stakeholders for a discussion that covered a broad range of issues concerning the toxic red tide and blue green algae blooms that plagued area waterways last summer.
University of Miami Professor of Marine Biology and Ecology Dr. Larry Brand spoke about the health effects of exposure to the blue-green algae toxin BMAA, which has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and Parkinson’s.
A prominent topic was the need to address sources of nitrogen nutrient pollution that can contribute to algal blooms like failing sewage and septic systems. Lee County officials recently heard from Florida Atlantic University scientists about the first phase of a $95,000 study commissioned by Lee County, which concludes 91% of septic systems in a North Fort Myers study area are malfunctioning.
Proposed legislation aiming to address faulty septic systems and address sewage spills from municipal collection treatment systems were among the bills that died in this year’s state legislative session.
“I think our biggest burden is not the science, but linking scientists with the public policy makers,” said Howard Simon. Simon recently retired from leading the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and is now coordinating with a team of scientists for a project called “Clean Okeechobee Waters.”
Environmental land use attorney Martha Collins with the Collins Law Group expressed concerns over federal and state coordination involving the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “What happened under the last eight years of the Rick Scott administration? They’ve (DEP) been completely gutted,” said Collins.
“So if we’re looking to the Department of Environmental Protection to take on what the EPA is delegating, we better make darn sure that the DEP can do this and right now, I’m not seeing an agency that can handle this at all.”
Conservancy of Southwest Florida President and CEO Rob Moher said he hopes more of these meetings take place going forward.
“I think what Congressman Rooney heard today were some very specific concrete ways that we could get federal dollars and federal resources acknowledged to help us solve these problems; short term problems like just alerting the public when there are blue green algae and what concerns should they have in what areas, to the longer-term solutions of obviously getting $200 million a year for Everglades restoration from the federal budget, which we desperately need. ”
Some specific requests came from Audubon of Florida’s Brad Cornell, who asked Rooney to work on funneling federal dollars from the recently reauthorized Land and Water Conservation Fund toward purchasing National Wildlife Refuge land in Florida. The fund comes from $900 million a year paid for oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Cornell also highlighted available funding for conservation programs through the 2018 federal Farm Bill.
After the meeting, Rooney expressed interest in holding similar roundtable meetings going forward.
“I think it’s a good idea! I think the interest level is strong. And I think we need to broaden our base as much as possible.”
Congressman Rooney said his top environmental issues going forward concern addressing sources of nitrogen pollution that feed harmful algal blooms and securing $200 million in federal funding for the EAA reservoir.
Other roundtable participants included representatives of the Environmental Defense Fund, Ocean Research and Conservation Association, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, Captains for Clean Water, the Snook and Gamefish Foundation, the Erin Brockovich Foundation and the Community Foundation of Collier County.