Environmentalists Sue State of Florida, Allege Failure to Enforce Clean Water Act, Demand Permits For Dairies

TALLAHASSEE (April 9, 2001) - Three Florida environmental groups filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) on Monday, April 9, 2001, charging the state agency with failure to enforce the Clean Water Act in Florida. The civil action alleges that DEP has failed to require NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) permits and other legal requirements for large concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) with more than 700 mature dairy cattle.

Save Our Suwannee, ManaSota-88, Conservation Alliance of St. Lucie County and Linda L. Young (as an individual) are being represented in the lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Steven A. Medina, Florida attorney for the Clean Water Network.

Allegations in the lawsuit are based upon DEP's own records that show approximately 35 large CAFO dairies are discharging waste into state waters without permits.

"Large-scale dairies and other animal feedlots are destroying our waterways, contaminating drinking water, and threatening public health," says Melanie Flynn, an NRDC attorney. "My clients are merely asking DEP to put some controls on this industry that will protect Florida's waterways and state residents."

DEP's records also show that waters in close proximity to many of the dairies already are polluted and violate state water quality standards.

"Big agriculture is one of the most under-regulated, yet environmentally damaging industries in the state of Florida," says Glenn Compton, president of ManaSota-88. "Thus far, there has been a failure on the part of the DEP to prevent deterioration of our most basic resource, clean water. DEP has given priority to short term economic gain over maintaining the long term environmental health of Florida's water resources."

The lower Suwannee River, the lower Santa Fe River and many of the attractive and famous springs of the Suwannee basin are showing increasingly heavy concentrations of nitrates. This nutrient pollution is mostly attributed to large and intensive agricultural operations. Accordingly, DEP several years ago decided that new dairies in the Suwannee Basin should be subjected to waste water permits. These permits require operations to control the release of nitrates to the groundwater, which in the Suwannee karst geology, flows to the springs and rivers. Monitoring wells at the larger permitted dairies indicate that even with the required technology, it is often difficult to avoid exceeding the maximum allowable pollution, 10 milligrams per liter -- the drinking water standard.

Most of the dairies in the Suwannee Basin, however, predate the requirement of a permit, and still do not have permits. Some have thousands of cows, do not follow the same best management practices as permitted dairies, and do not monitor the groundwater leaving the property.

"The urgent problem of the Suwannee Basin is the ever-increasing nitrate contamination," says Svenn Lindskold, former president of Save Our Suwannee. "This huge problem can hardly be dealt with as long as there are many large dairies operating without pollution-control equipment and without monitoring of their effluent. Current efforts to get voluntary compliance with standards at non-permitted dairies are slow to produce results, are not monitored, and are sometimes apparently ignored or violated. Millions of dollars of public money are granted to the operators to install control measures. In exchange, operators are not required to monitor and are not liable for groundwater contamination in the vicinity."

The Florida Legislature is currently considering legislation that will severely limit citizen participation in permitting and enforcement of environmental permits (see Senate Bill 910 by Sen. Jim King and House Bill 1135 by Rep. Dennis Ross). This lawsuit underscores the need for citizens to be involved in government programs and to be encouraged, not discouraged, to watchdog government agencies.

"All one must do is look around at the lakes and rivers we drink from and fish and swim in, to know that Florida has seriously troubled waters," says Bob Bangert, president of the Conservation Alliance of St. Lucie County. "More than 50 percent of Florida waters do not meet standards for fishing and swimming. For the Florida Legislature to be considering a bill to further intimidate citizens from trying to protect their communities' clean water supplies is outrageous and insulting to the citizens of Florida."

Related NRDC Pages
Pollution from Giant Livestock Farms Kills Millions of Fish