Environmental groups file notice to sue EPA over manatee deaths

'Indian River Lagoon and the manatee are presently in the midst of ecological collapse.'

Charging that both the Indian River Lagoon and Florida’s manatee population are amid “ecological collapse,” four environmental groups filed notice Monday of intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The notice contends the EPA failed to adequately oversee Florida’s enforcement of the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, resulting in an environmental disaster with massive die-off of manatees over the past year or so.

The groups include Earthjustice, representing the Center for Biological DiversitySave the Manatee Club, and Defenders of Wildlife. The notice, sent to EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan and EPA Water Protection Division Section Chief Tony Able, gives the agencies 60 days to address violations alleged in the letter before officially filing a lawsuit in federal court.

The notice is asking the EPA to reinitiate consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service to reassess the water-quality standards in the Indian River Lagoon and the waterways that feed into it.

“More than 1,000 manatees have died so far this year in Florida, as part of a catastrophic ‘Unusual Mortality Event,’ the notice reads. “This represents roughly double the average number of deaths in years prior, and it is the most deaths ever recorded in a year. More than half of those deaths occurred in the northern Indian River Lagoon due to starvation and malnutrition caused by seagrass die-offs attributable to nutrient pollution and associated harmful algal outbreaks.”

The notice contends that the agencies’ estuary-specific standards for the Indian River Lagoon “suffer from lax enforcement, an inappropriately long trajectory to achieve compliance, and a failure to take into account the impact of legacy pollution.”

Therefore, the groups charge, the agency has failed to uphold the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act mandates.

The accusation is that the result has been 12% of the Florida manatee population have recently died across the state, including 19% of the Atlantic Ocean subpopulation.

“In short, both the Indian River Lagoon and the manatee are presently in the midst of ecological collapse,” the notice contends. “Further, it appears likely that the 2021 Unusual Mortality Event will not be a one-time event, but rather portends a grim future of continued manatee deaths unless more effective actions are taken to address the key environmental factor driving them — nutrient pollution of key estuary habitats that is destroying habitat, including food for manatees and many other species.”

“It is painfully clear that Florida isn’t doing what’s necessary to control the sewage and fertilizer pollution that’s wrecking the Indian River Lagoon,” Earthjustice attorney Elizabeth Forsyth said in a statement the groups released Monday. “It’s time for EPA to step in and enforce the Clean Water Act for the sake of the manatees and all the other creatures and people that rely on Florida’s waterways. If watching manatees starve isn’t the tipping point for the EPA to step in, I don’t know what is.”

Marine biologists believe high-nutrient water runoff from farms and cities fueled massive algae blooms, which in turn choked off the seagrasses, killing them. Without seagrasses, the manatees are starving.

“For over a decade, Save the Manatee Club and other conservation scientists have been warning politicians about this problem. It is entirely due to a failure to rein in polluters that this foreseeable and preventable tragedy is occurring,” Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of Save the Manatee Club, said in the release. “We have exhausted our options at the state level. It is up to the federal agencies who are ultimately responsible for approving these failed standards to step in and correct course before it is truly too late.”

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected].

One comment

  • steve porter

    December 20, 2021 at 6:34 pm

    Tourists move here at an alarming rate and care only about the sunshine and a green yard. They treat our waterways like a sewer. Developers are part of the problem as well as golf courses

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