ACLU Report: State Agencies Failed to Sufficiently Warn of Public Health Dangers of Toxic Algae Bloom

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New report “Tainted Waters: Threats to Public Health and the People’s Right to Know” identifies shortcomings, delays in state warnings; Independent scientists say dangers of blue-green algae have been understated and not sufficiently researched by the state

Florida officials did not provide the public with timely or trustworthy information during the 2016 toxic algae bloom that affected the Treasure Coast communities, according to an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida. The findings of the investigation are published today in the report Tainted Waters: Threats to Public Health and the People’s Right to Know.

In the wake of the 2016 outbreak of toxic algae in the St. Lucie River and Estuary and along Florida’s Treasure Coast, the ACLU of Florida sought to investigate the state’s record of transparency with regard to the dissemination of information about the potential danger to the public health posed by the algae flow, based on reports that warnings to the public were insufficient.

ACLU of Florida investigative reporter John Lantigua, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who has previously written for the Washington Post, Newsweek, The Miami Herald, and The Palm Beach Post, investigated the state’s response to the algae outbreak. His research was conducted with the help local residents, scientists, media sources, and those state employees who were willing to cooperate.

“Open government means people have a right to be informed about what public officials and employees are doing, and that information is particularly crucial when it comes to public health issues,” stated Lantigua. “What we found was a lack of urgency and transparency on the part of the state in reporting information about the crisis, caused by the release of tainted waters from Lake Okeechobee.”

In the summer of 2016, a major blue-green algae bloom clogged the waters of the St. Lucie River and its estuary. The infestation caused an overpowering, noxious smell, burning eyes, headaches, flu-like symptoms, respiratory problems, and rashes. The local hospital weathered a spike in emergency room patients. People were forced to evacuate waterside properties and escape to more distant lodgings.

Blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, release a toxic substance known as microcystin which is a potential cause of liver damage and cancer. Although state health agencies did warn of some health risks posed by algae-tainted waters, independent scientists quoted in “Tainted Waters” say that the potential health risks of exposure were understated and are not sufficiently studied by state agencies.

The report quotes scientists and residents on the Treasure Coast area who are concerned that the state provided no public warning about the threat to down-river communities, despite finding high levels of microcystin in Lake Okeechobee prior to releasing water from its gates. The investigation also found that state scientists testing the river and estuary waters for toxins did so in places where the algae was thinnest, or non-existent,  as opposed to along shores and inlets where algae accumulates and where people interact most with the water, thereby underreporting the level of toxins to which people could be exposed.

In addition, local officials and groups complain that although a 1999 state statute dictates that state agencies, local officials and interested citizens come together to monitor and try to mitigate the effects of algae infestations, the task force created by that statute has not been funded since 2001, leaving people without a valuable vehicle to hold the state agencies accountable. They want that task force to be active once again.

The full report is available here: www.aclufl.org/taintedwaters

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