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Groups: Federal Court Gives Big Agriculture a "Free Pass" to Pollute

June 11, 2009

Turn on the water tap and get - pollution? That's what several Florida groups warn can be expected after a new federal appeals court ruling that clears the way for "back-pumping" from drainage canals into South Florida's Lake Okeechobee.

A previous court had ruled that federal Clean Water Act oversight was needed in the situation, because back-pumping was contaminating drinking water supplies and creating toxic byproducts that threaten public health as well as wildlife. David Guest, managing attorney for Earthjustice, says the issue has been in court since 2002, when his firm first filed a lawsuit alleging drinking water contamination.

"This is about the public's right to clean drinking water. It's 'big agriculture' and city's private sewer, where they use the drinking water supply as their sewer. That's wrong, and that's what the Clean Water Act was aimed to stop."

Back-pumping injects dark-colored, polluted water into the lake, Guest explains, creating a flow that is the equivalent of a medium-sized river, spreading for miles into the water. Other courts have agreed the drainage can cause toxic algae blooms, like the one that spilled from Lake Okeechobee into the St. Lucie estuary, he says.

"It was so poisonous that a dog could drink out of it and just fall down dead. People would reach into it and get these awful sores on their arms; there were public health warnings to avoid any contact with the water."

Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller says this is the latest in a series of chronic water quality problems in Lake Okeechobee since the 1970s. In his view, it's time for a change.

"We consider moving polluted water into less polluted waters to be a source of pollution. You need clean water to have a healthy Lake Okeechobee, and all the fish and wildlife that live in it."

According to Guest, the South Florida Water Management District claims the pumping should be exempt from the Clean Water Act. The Bush administration agreed, calling permits unnecessary for back-pumping drainage into public waters. Most of the drainage comes from agricultural operations.

Gina Presson , Public News Service - FL