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Feds sued over pollution blamed for spike in manatee deaths

Conservation groups say the Environmental Protection Agency must reevaluate water quality standards for Florida’s Indian River Lagoon.

ORLANDO, Fla. (CN) — Following a record-breaking year for manatee deaths, three environmental organizations sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday, alleging the federal agency has not done enough to prevent pollution in one of Florida’s most important estuaries.

Save the Manatee Club, Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife filed the 86-page complaint in Orlando federal court to force the EPA to reassess water quality standards approved over a decade ago. Algae blooms caused by nitrogen and phosphorus pollution have choked the once-vibrant Indian River Lagoon, killing the seagrass manatees depend on for survival, the groups say.

Last year, more than 1,100 manatees died in Florida — the most ever recorded — with over half of those occurring in the Indian River Lagoon. In the first four months of 2022, more than 500 manatees have died, according to a preliminary mortality report compiled by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

“The lagoon is now at its ecological tipping point,” the lawsuit states. “If pollution is not curbed the lagoon will no longer be defined by its seagrass habitat, but by toxic or harmful algal outbreaks.”

The Indian River Lagoon, located off Florida’s Atlantic Coast, is a 156-mile-long estuary considered one of the most biologically diverse in North America. The lagoon is home to thousands of species of fish and wildlife and provides 50% of the annual fish harvest on the state’s east coast, according to the St. Johns River Water Management District.

But in recent years, algae blooms have blanketed the lagoon’s seagrass beds, blocking sunlight from reaching the plants. Seagrass makes up the majority of a manatee’s diet. Environmental groups contend fertilizer runoff and leaking septic systems are to blame as development booms along the lagoon’s borders.

In addition to manatees, the pollution is contributing to fatal tumors in green sea turtles, a threatened species, and deaths of smalltooth sawfish, which is classified as endangered. In 2017, manatees were downgraded from endangered to a threatened species.

The plaintiffs want the EPA to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reevaluate the state’s water quality standards previously approved by the agency. New information, such as the increasing number of algae blooms, compels the EPA to do this per the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, according to the lawsuit.

Last August, as manatee deaths mounted, the FWS announced an “unusual mortality event” and petitioned the EPA to reinitiate consultation. The EPA refused.

The agency did not respond to a request for comment.

“Hundreds of manatees are dying in the Indian River Lagoon as the water quality plummets, and the EPA must confront the massive nutrient pollution behind this disaster,” said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “The existing water-quality standards just aren’t strong enough to preserve this important ecosystem and save these amazing animals.”

As the situation worsened, state and federal wildlife officials took an unprecedented measure: feeding the starving manatees. Over a four-month period, a “temporary response team” fed more than 200,000 pounds of lettuce to the creatures at inlets and estuaries along Florida’s east coast where the manatees gather in the winter. Once waters warmed, the manatees dispersed and the state suspended the program, but wildlife officials hinted more feeding may be necessary next winter,

Earlier this month, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis pledged $30 million in funding for manatee rescue programs and habitat restoration.

“This historic funding will support important restoration efforts across the state to benefit our manatees and Florida’s natural environment,” DeSantis said during a press conference at the Jacksonville Zoo. “My administration will continue working to find new and innovative ways to support our native species, like the manatee, so that the generations to come can experience Florida’s natural resources.”

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