Okeechobee News: Mast blames lake for toxins in coastal waters

Article Posted on February 6, 2019

By: Katrina Elsken, Lake Okeechobee News


OKEECHOBEE — On Feb. 4, U.S. Congressman Brian Mast (FL-18) introduced new legislation, called the Toxic Health Threat Warning Act, requiring the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to notify affected communities about public health dangers “before discharging water contaminated with cyanobacteria.”

Rep. Mast stated, “Our goal is no discharges, period. But right now, the Army Corps won’t even acknowledge the health risks created by their discharges. The bottom line is this: if someone’s health is at risk, then they need to be notified. This bill will require the Army Corps to take accountability for their life-threatening actions and ensure that people know the dangers of coming into contact with toxic water.”

Congressman Mast’s press release claims “Last summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discharged water from Lake Okeechobee that was found to be more than 50 times too toxic for human contact.” Florida Department of Environmental Regulation tests do not back up this claim.

While toxin levels were high in many areas sampled in coastal waterways, the lake water was not high in toxins according to the data in the FDEP website.

FDEP reports showed the toxin levels in Lake Okeechobee were low all summer. Most tests on water in Lake Okeechobee tested showed no toxins or levels that were barely detectable, and well below the 10 micro-grams per liter level deemed safe for recreational contact by the World Health Organization. None of the lake samples tested at “50 times” the WHO limit.

The Okeechobee Utility Authority uses Lake Okeechobee as the primary drinking water source for its public drinking water system. OUA tests did not detect toxins in the lake water.

Toxin levels were much higher in coastal waterways than in the lake. Many coastal residents blamed the lake releases, but scientists say the issue is much more complicated.

Research conducted by Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute found that while the lake releases may have contained cyanobacteria (which is naturally found in most freshwater), the higher nutrient load from coastal runoff caused the cyanobacteria to reproduce more rapidly, releasing toxins.

Rep. Mast’s Toxic Health Threat Warning Act would:

Require tests to be conducted to determine whether the water to be released from a flood risk management project is contaminated with cyanobacteria; and, if the water is contaminated, require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to notify the public and affected governments of the contamination, planned discharge and potential public health effects before releasing the water.”

The information released about the legislation does not specify the concentration of cyanobacteria that would trigger such a warning, or explain how they would designate if water is “contaminated” with cyanobacteria. Freshwater lakes, rivers and streams naturally contains some cyanobacteria and algae, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Cyanobacteria is the oldest life form on the planet. Not all cyanobacteria produce toxins. Some, not all, cyanobacteria found in Lake Okeechobee can, under certain circumstances, produce toxins. However, even cyanobacteria capable of producing toxins do not always do so…

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