STUART — U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Stuart, announced on Wednesday that he plans to file legislation in the U.S. House that would prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from releasing water from Lake Okeechobee to the St. Lucie Canal or the St. Lucie Estuary if the toxin levels of the microcystin in the water is above 8 parts per billion (ppb).
“The Army Corps has proven that if left to their own devices, they will continue to poison our communities with toxic discharges from Lake Okeechobee that they have acknowledged to be toxic. No Floridian should tolerate being poisoned by their government,” Congressman Mast said at a press conference in Stuart. “The EPA has told us exactly what level of microcystin is too toxic for human contact, and now we must tell the corps to stop these discharges that are destroying our waterways and putting our health at risk.”
The bill, which has not yet been assigned a number, states:
“A BILL to require the Corps of Engineers to prohibit certain discharges of water at Lake Okeechobee, and for other purposes.
“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
“SECTION 1. LAKE OKEECHOBEE DISCHARGE PROHIBITION.
“The Secretary of the Army, acting through the Chief of Engineers, shall prohibit discharges of water through the S-308 and S-80 lock and dam structures at Lake Okeechobee when the water exceeds the maximum concentration of microcystins recommended for recreational waters by the Environmental Protection Agency, as described in the notice titled ‘‘Recommended Human Health Recreational Ambient Water Quality Criteria or Swimming Advisories for Microcystins and Cylindrospermopsin’ (84 Fed. Reg. 26413) (or any successor water quality criteria), based on tests conducted by the Secretary, another Federal agency, or the State of Florida.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not comment on proposed legislation. However, the 2020 Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) already includes provisions to minimize the discharge of water from the coastal estuaries when high levels of toxins are present. The state has been tasked with determining the criteria for the toxin levels and testing.
At the July 29 meeting of Florida’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force, David Whiting of DEP explained the 8 micrograms per liter limit for recreational use is based on the toxin exposure to a small child, age 6-10, while recreating in water. In setting this standard, the EPA researchers assumed a child might swallow some water while swimming or playing in the water. He explained they tested the urine of children who swam in chlorinated pools for chlorine levels to estimate how much water a child ingests while swimming.
Not all cyanobacteria produce toxins, and cyanobacteria capable of producing toxins do not always do so, he added. Laboratory tests are needed to determine if toxins are present.
He also noted the toxin levels can vary from sample to sample. “You could take two different dips of water at the same location and get different results. You could go an hour apart and get different results,” he said. “Because conditions change so rapidly, reliance on a bloom sample result that is already three to four days old is not adaptive enough,” he explained. It might not reflect the actual conditions across the site that is experiencing a bloom.
The size of the lake and the patchiness of algal blooms also make testing a problem. The DEP, the district and local counties are not going to be able to sample every hundred yards along the lake, said Dr. Michael Parsons of Florida Gulf Coast University.
“When these waters are being discharged out the lake, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is expressing a willingness to take toxin levels into consideration, but they don’t want to be in charge of setting the criteria up,” he said. The task force agreed to invite corps officials to their next meeting to discuss the details.
The legislation leaves a lot of questions unanswered. The newspaper was unable to reach anyone in any of Rep. Mast’s offices in Washington, D.C., Port St. Lucie, Stuart or North Palm Beach by phone, so the following questions were emailed to him:
• WRDA 2020 already includes a provision to minimize discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers from Lake Okeechobee if toxins are present. Why is additional federal legislation needed?
• Where will the toxin levels be measured? Does this apply to any sample taken on the entire lake or just the area closest to the Port Mayaca Lock where water from the lake enters the C-44 Canal, or a certain distance from the lock? If the toxin level at the Pahokee marina (a common trouble spot) on the south end of the lake is above 8 ppb, would that rule out releases from the whole lake?
• What happens after a hurricane if the lake is above the danger level for the integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike? When does the danger of a dike breach, which would cause catastrophic environmental damage for much of South Florida, outweigh the rule about the microcystin levels?
• Why does this legislation only apply to the St. Lucie River and not offer equal protection for the Caloosahatchee River? Do the people of Lee County deserve less protection than the people of Martin County?
• What happens when algae blooms start in Martin County canals that flow into the C-44 (as happened this year) when the water is backflowing into Lake Okeechobee? Will the lake be given similar protection from toxins flowing into that body of water?
• What if the toxin level in water from the lake is not above 8 ppb, but after the water enters the C-44 Canal, the algae bloom intensifies and the toxin levels rise, as has been documented in previous years? The legislation says water with levels about 8 ppb can’t be released through the St. Lucie Lock. If the lake level is too high for the now-toxic water to back flow into the lake, what happens? Would you just let Martin County flood rather than release water through the St. Lucie Lock?