For Immediate Release, April 20, 2020

Contact:

Jaclyn Lopez, Center for Biological Diversity, (727) 490-9190, jlopez@biologicaldiversity.org
John Cassani, Calusa Waterkeeper, (239) 633-7274, cassani@calusawaterkeeper.org
Maia Raposo, Waterkeeper Alliance, (203) 824-2229, mraposo@waterkeeper.org

Lawsuit Launched Challenging Feds’ Failure to Fully Assess Harms of Lake Okeechobee Toxic Releases to Protected Sea Turtles, Sawfish

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— Conservation groups filed a notice today of their intent to sue the Trump administration for failing to acknowledge the harms that toxic releases from Lake Okeechobee pose to protected wildlife like sea turtles and smalltooth sawfish.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Calusa Waterkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance say the National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers failed to fully consider how the toxic algae and other pollutants from the Corps’ lake discharges harm wildlife, especially when they occur at the same time as red tide.

“Toxic algae blooms are already forming on Lake Okeechobee, yet federal regulators refuse to admit that lake discharges harm marine wildlife,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We can’t have a repeat of years past when Floridians witnessed piles of dead and dying wildlife, thick, guacamole water and the empty promises from federal regulators. We won’t stop until the agencies right this course.”

The notice is in response to agencies’ failure to adequately consider harms to wildlife from the Lake Okeechobee Regulation Schedule, or LORS.

After the groups noticed the agencies over similar violations in December 2018 and filed suit in June 2019, the agencies reinitiated informal consultation. But recently the agencies concluded LORS is not likely to adversely affect protected smalltooth sawfish, Johnson’s seagrass, or loggerhead, green, Kemp’s ridley, hawksbill or leatherback sea turtles.

In the 12-year history of LORS, the federal agencies responsible for consulting on harms to protected wildlife have never analyzed whether LORS jeopardizes listed species or adversely modifies their habitat and have never authorized harm to the species.

Loggerhead sea turtle critical habitat is found in the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries; smalltooth sawfish critical habitat is found throughout the Caloosahatchee estuary; and Johnson’s seagrass critical habitat is found in the Indian River Lagoon.

“It's hard to believe that the federal agencies could conclude that LORS is unlikely to impact sawfish, sea turtles or their protected habitat despite the resources getting bombed every summer with excessive flows and starved every dry season for adequate flows often leading to toxic algal blooms,” said John Cassani, Calusa waterkeeper.

“It's extremely disappointing that the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is charged with protecting these endangered marine species, has conducted such a haphazard and flawed review of the enormous impacts of toxic releases of contaminated water from Lake Okeechobee,” said Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and advocacy director at Waterkeeper Alliance. “The agency's conclusion that the releases are not likely to adversely affect any of these species or their critical habitat is a dereliction of duty and is plainly wrong.”

It is well documented that the LORS harms the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, their estuaries, and marine plants and animals. Conservation organizations’ 2019 lawsuit is still pending in the Southern District of Florida.

loggerhead_turtle_noaa_FPWC.jpg
Loggerhead sea turtle, courtesy NOAA FPWC Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Calusa Waterkeeper is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of the Caloosahatchee River & Estuary, Lake Okeechobee, Nicodemus Slough, Charlotte Harbor, Estero Bay, the near-shore waters of Lee County, and their watersheds, through education and promotion of responsible use and enjoyment by all people. For more information please visit https://www.facebook.com/CalusaWaterkeeper/.

Waterkeeper Alliance is a global movement uniting more than 300 Waterkeeper groups around the world, focusing citizen action on issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change. The Waterkeeper movement patrols and protects over 2.5 million square miles of rivers, lakes, and coastlines in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia and Africa. For more information please visit www.waterkeeper.org.