Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Indian River Lagoon: Environmental Crime Scene

The signs of Florida’s ailing waters continue to mount. You need look no further than Florida’s Indian River Lagoon to see the mounting stress on our lakes and rivers. The lagoon watershed spans 2,200 square miles and seven counties.  The lagoons waters comprise a 156-mile-long estuary where salt water from the Atlantic Ocean mixes with freshwater from the land. As a spawning and nursery ground of many fish, the lagoon acts as a cradle of the ocean. Lagoon fisheries generate some $30 million in revenues each year and provide 50% of the annual fish harvest on the eastern coast of Florida. In total, the annual economic value of the lagoon was estimated at $3.7 billion in 2007, supporting 15,000 full and part-time jobs and affording recreational opportunities to 11 million people per year. Moreover, the lagoon is one of America’s most biologically diverse estuaries, home to 700 fish species and 400 bird species.

Despite Indian River Lagoon’s unique characteristics and economic value, the lagoon has fallen ill. In spring of 2011, an algal “super-bloom” covered 130,000 acres choking off 47,000 acres of sea grasses, a reduction of about 60% of the lagoon’s total grass coverage. Sea grass is critical to the health of the lagoon as it serves as a food source for manatees and a nursery and place of refuge for fish and other marine life. In August of 2012, a brown tide bloom swelled in portions of the lagoon. The loss of sea grass from the 2011 super-bloom alone represents a loss between $235 to 470 million in commercial and recreational fisheries value. Since then, sea grass coverage in the lagoon has slowly regrown, but locals say it could be close to a decade before the lagoon will recover, if it even can.

Now, for unexplained reasons, 46 bottlenose dolphins, 111 manatees, and 300 pelicans have died in the Indian River Lagoon over the last year. Simultaneously, large numbers of fish, crabs, and oysters have also perished. (NOTE: Since January of this year, 10% of Florida’s population of 5,000 manatees have died from red tide, boat accidents, and the mystery illness in the Indian River Lagoon!) This massive loss of marine life has confused scientists. Explanations for the deaths include fertilizer-laden storm water runoff, polluted water dumped from Lake Okeechobee by the Army Corps of Engineers, climate change and effects on acidity, changes in water temperature and salt levels, and overflow from contaminated mosquito-control ditches.

Scientists, citizens, and environmental groups across the state have reason to be alarmed by the tumultuous health of the Indian River Lagoon. As an “indicator species,” the plight of the manatees is a red flag for the health of the region’s broader aquatic ecosystem. The algal super blooms and massive loss of marine life should serve as a powerful impetus for state action in implementing stronger water quality laws and restoration efforts. But the ailing health of our state’s waters continues to take a backseat in Tallahassee. Since Governor Scott entered office in 2009, the state has gutted the budgets of the water management districts by $700 million, axed $150 million from the DEP budget, and terminated a 2001 initiative commenced by former Governor Jeb Bush to protect the state’s springs.

Is there hope for the future of Florida’s waters? This past March, the EPA approved the DEP’s proposed numeric nutrient criteria limiting the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus for the majority of Florida’s waters. Some conservation groups criticize the adopted “speed limit” standards as not stringent enough to protect Florida’s waterways. Florida Agricultural Commissioner Adam Putnam has defended the DEP standards as among the best in the nation but not so stringent as to make every wastewater-treatment utility in the state out of compliance and needing to spend billions of dollars in compliance costs. Only time will tell whether the DEP-proposed water standards will improve the health of our natural resources. But for waterways like the Indian River Lagoon, the need for relief is immediate.

-Stephen Holmgren, Legal Extern

Monday, June 3, 2013

Making our Green Lawns "Greener"

The stereotypical green lawn of the cookie-cutter suburban home has a history that reaches back into the Middle Ages as an early symbol of wealth. By the early 1600’s, the English aristocracy had begun cultivating expansive lawns and gardens. The lawn became a status symbol, a symbol that reminded the penniless masses that the aristocracy had so much wealth that it was unnecessary for all their land be used for food production. The lawn as we know it today attained its popularity in the early 19th century when wealthy American families imported the idea from England and popularized it. By the late 19th century, affluent families left the cities for the suburbs bringing their green lawns with them. The subsequent improvements in the lawn mower and creation of the lawn-sprinkler enabled the rapid spread of lawn culture through American society. With the creation of the 40-hour work week and post-WWII housing boom, lawn culture reached its peak with ubiquitous country clubs and golf courses. Today, one study by the University of Montana estimates there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than acres of irrigated corn. Studies suggest that greater amounts of chemical fertilizer and pesticides are used per acre of lawn than on an equivalent acre of cultivated farmland.

The National Wildlife Federation reports that as much as half of residential water is used for landscaping, chiefly watering lawns. Extensive irrigation practices combined with the use of as much as 70 million pounds of active pesticide ingredients produce a polluted run-off that is one of the largest sources of water pollution nationwide. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the two major fertilizer nutrients used in both agricultural and non-agricultural settings. As these chemicals run off lawns onto hard-surfaced roads and ditches, the polluted run-off flows back into streams and ultimately pollutes groundwater without the benefit of soil acting as a filter. As phosphorus accumulates in rivers and streams, it creates algal blooms, turning the water green and suffocating fish and other species by depleting oxygen. An example of this pollution is the “Green Monster” in North Florida. Every so often, a massive algal bloom chokes the St. Johns River due to the wastewater effluent dumped into the river, failed septic tanks, and excessive fertilizing.

Recognizing the environmental consequences of excessive lawn irrigation, the Florida Legislature enacted the “Florida Friendly Landscaping” law (s. 373.185) in 2009 which allows homeowners to create lawns that conserve water, protect the environment, and are adaptable to local conditions. Under this statute, each water management district is tasked with creating, publicizing, and monitoring incentive programs encouraging local governments to adopt “Florida-friendly” landscape ordinances and practices. The statute even exempts homeowners from deed restrictions or covenants that would prohibit Florida-friendly landscaping on their properties. Many resources exist for homeowners to plan and cultivate “green” lawns. UF’s IFAS office publishes several helpful guides and resources toward this end. You can find them and others linked at the end of this blog post. Using these sources as a guide, you can help reduce the ecological impact of your own lawn thereby reducing the strain on and pollution of our aquifers and creating a more beautiful and natural Florida for all to enjoy.

Resources for cultivating your “Florida-friendly” lawn:
http://fyn.ifas.ufl.edu/homeowner.htm http://www.floridayards.org/ http://www.epa.gov/oppfead1/Publications/catalog/greenscaping.pdf

-Stephen Holmgren, Legal Extern

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Superfund Site Spotlight: Jacksonville

Congress enacted CERCLA, also known as Superfund, in 1980 to address releases or threatened releases of hazardous chemicals into the environment. The act required those parties responsible for the polluted sites to fund the cleanup efforts. The federal government also manages a trust fund, funded by a tax on chemical and petroleum industries, to finance the cleanup of those hazardous and abandoned sites where the responsible parties cannot be identified. Yet the Superfund trust fund is far too limited to fund the cleanup of no more than a handful of the 1,150 sites. CERCLA thus established a National Priorities List (NPL) that identifies and prioritizes the sites needing long-term remedial action to permanently or significantly reduce the threat of hazardous chemical releases.

Here in Florida, we are home to 55 Superfund sites on the NPL. In this Superfund Spotlight, I will examine three NPL sites in Jacksonville: the Kerr-McGee chemical plant, the Fairfax Street Wood Treatment factory, and Cecil Field. The Kerr-McGee site in Jacksonville was once home to a fertilizer factory. The factory created pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals from the 1890s until 1978. Site tests have indicated the presence of benzene, DDT, toxaphene, arsenic, lead, and other toxins. The estimated cost of the site clean-up hovers around $18.6 million. The site’s last owner, Tronox (a spin-off company from Kerr-McGee), filed for bankruptcy in 2009 but has promised to pay at least $4.2 million of those costs as part of a broader settlement with the EPA involving a number of old, polluted Kerr-McGee sites. Although there are no reported injuries from this site, a 2003 study by the FL Department of Health indicated that just living on the property for a few weeks could result in significant injuries. The planned cleanup efforts are of little reprieve for the former factory workers, though. Although the state has never sanctioned a study into the health of these workers, many of them reported health problems by the time they either quit or retired.

Squished behind two elementary schools, the Fairfax Street Wood Treatment factory was added to the NPL this past year. In 2011, the EPA enacted an emergency clean-up plan to remove the most hazardous chemicals given the site’s proximity to those schools. Moreover, as part of this emergency clean-up, the EPA removed soil and water contamination from one of the neighboring elementary school playgrounds. From 1980 to 2010, the factory pressure-treated utility poles, pilings, and other lumber products, leading to water and sediment contamination of tow known carcinogens: copper and arsenic. But, because the previous site’s owner has also gone bankrupt, the EPA will have to finance the long-term cleanup costs with already strained Superfund trust funding.

Cecil Field once stood tall in western Jacksonville as a navy-designated Master Jet Base from the 1950s until the end of the 20th century. During that period, Cecil Field housed numerous fighter jet and aircraft squadrons that would see involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War, and Gulf War. Incident to this now mostly defunct military presence, Cecil Field experienced pollution from a multitude of hazardous materials including solvents, corrosives, pesticides, paints, and petroleum products. Clean-up efforts of the fifteen identified contaminated areas at Cecil Field have also uncovered high concentrations of lead and even live, unexploded weapons buried in the earth. Cleanup efforts are still ongoing and have succeeded in removing immediate threats to human exposure. Future cleanup efforts will address the remaining groundwater pollution. Although the naval presence at Cecil Field has diminished significantly from its heyday in the latter half of the 20th century, some residents voice concerns about potential new pollution of the 17,000 acre site with the prospect of additional aircraft and hangars on the horizon.

These site cleanups are critical for improving the quality of life and the environment in northeast Florida. But with many of the original polluting parties now defunct or bankrupt, the burden of restoration efforts must fall on the EPA and its limited funding. And as always, the challenge of balancing environmental protection with industry growth looms large in the future economic development of the city.

-Stephen Holmgren, Legal Extern

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Price of Meat

As a self-proclaimed foodie, I like to envision myself as a gastropub gladiator, cautiously navigating my way through the Jacksonville jungle, fork and knife in hand, looking for the next great bite suggested by any magazine, newspaper, TV show, scroll, parchment, telegram or church bulletin I can get my hands on. I eat out as often as a law school pittance will allow and love to try new recipes. I’ve attempted everything from exotic North African lentil stew to ultra-southern hamburger steak in gravy. But ever since I was about seven years old and caught a graphic PBS special on cattle farming and the beef industry, I have faced an existential crisis wrapped in a moral dilemma. To eat or not to eat meat? For the most part, I limit my animal product intake as often as I can, substituting black beans for taco meat or coconut milk for cow’s milk. But every once in a while, a girl has got to have a steak. And this brings me to the environmental portion of the blog. I have always been vaguely aware that meat came from a place the details of which were better left unsaid, but after a semester in Animals and the Law and a forced screening of Joaquin Phoenix narrating animal torture in the movie “Earthling”, I decided while I probably couldn’t change the world, I could change how I was doing things. Most Americans consume meat that comes from Concentrated Feeding Operations (otherwise known as CAFOs). To put it mildly, CAFOS deposit too many animals together in one space and force them to live out their short lives in horrific and unsanitary conditions. Not only is this bad news for the animals, it is bad news for public health, safety, and the environment. One of the biggest environmental spills in our nation’s history, almost double the size of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, occurred when a hog farm manure lagoon in North Carolina leaked into the New River, killing millions of fish. In recent years, there have been outbreaks of salmonella and e-coli poisoning, which some attribute to the CAFO conditions. Instead of a natural diet, CAFOs feed their animals predominantly corn. In cows, a corn diet allows e.coli to flourish in the animal’s digestive tract and causes the meat to be fattier and nutritionally inferior to the meat from a grass fed cow. The animals are often traumatized in transport and before slaughter and have adrenaline coursing through their bodies and this also creates a poorer taste and shelf-life for the meat. With all these health, safety and environmental concerns, what meat should you eat? Admittedly, it is very difficult on a student budget to shop exclusively at natural markets for beef, poultry and fish. This past weekend, in the interest of expediency and finances, I resolved myself to the standard butcher counter at my local supermarket. Much to my surprise and delight, in a tiny niche labeled “organic” there were two grass fed beef options, one of which was humane certified. So what did I do? After an aisle victory dance, a renewed sense of faith in humanity, and an inner monologue about a sign of things to come for consumer demand and concern; I made lasagna with grass fed, humane certified meat sauce. -Rachel Goldstein, Legal Intern

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Genetically Modified Food: Cure or Curse?

Almost all the fruits and vegetables we eat today are shadows of their former selves. That is to say, they are all highly modified versions of the wild variety or even the variety your grandparents ate, now bred and cross-bred to appeal to the consumers’ tastes and aesthetics. Instead of breeding for desired traits, scientists are now able to create desired traits by putting the genes of one organism into the genes of another. For example, scientists tried putting a flounder antifreeze gene into a strawberry gene so that the strawberry crop would be resistant to a frost. Whether or not the thought of mutant mango or bioengineered broccoli makes your skin crawl, there are some pretty good arguments for and against allowing genetic modification. Genetically modified (GM) food can be engineered to be healthier by making the food lower in natural sugars or natural fats. Nutrients can be added to the food, like high fiber corn. Genetic modification can lower fungal toxins that occur frequently in natural varieties. GM crops can be produced using less pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Some are touting genetic modification as the key to ending world hunger. Many third world countries only produce one key staple food, which results in malnourished populations. If crops can be genetically modified to include vitamins and minerals not naturally present, the staple crop can be provided to malnourished populations with greater nutritional benefit. Scientists have also been researching eatable vaccines because this will help lower the costs of manufacturing and storing the drug. Many proponents also claim GM crops will be positive for the environment by engineering plants that will be resistant to pests and require less pesticide. People with food allergies are concerned that GM foods may unintentionally introduce allergens into otherwise harmless food items. Others with dietary restrictions like people who keep kosher or vegetarians have similar concerns. A vegetarian may unintentionally ingest an animal gene contained in a fruit or someone who keeps kosher may eat a vegetable with a pig gene. Antibiotic resistant genes have been found in GM food and some are concerned that this resistance may transfer to people. Many worry about “superbugs” or “superweeds” that may adapt and become resistant to GM crops with pesticides built in. Environmentalists worry about unintended environmental consequences of GM crops. Remember DDT and DDT resistant mosquitos? A Cornell University study looked at the effects of GM corn on the monarch butterfly. Only 56% of the butterfly larvae survived when fed milkweed plants covered in GM corn pollen, while all of the larvae fed milkweed covered in non-GM corn pollen survived. While many scientists contested the validity of the study, it does raise important concerns. No matter how you feel about it, it is difficult to make an informed decision. Right now in the United States, food producers are not required to label their products as GM. Should they? -Rachel Goldstein, Legal Intern

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Largest Environmental Protest in History

On February 17, 2013, thousands of protesters marched on Washington in opposition to the Keystone Pipeline addition, in what many are describing as the biggest environmental protest in our nation’s history. The Keystone Pipeline transports crude oil from Canada to refineries located in the United States through an underground pipe system. The proposed addition would take the pipeline farther, all the way down into Texas along the Gulf Coast. The project is in limbo until the President decides to approve or deny the necessary permits. As of January 2012, President Obama wanted more time for an environmental assessment before coming to a final decision, which is expected soon. Proponents of the addition say that the pipeline will help promote energy security, create jobs, stimulate the economy, and reduce reliance on foreign oil. Others are worried that the pipeline will undermine Obama’s new clean energy policy and present more serious and immediate threats to the environment. People are worried about the potentially disastrous effects of an oil spill on the environment, especially where the pipeline crosses ecologically precious and sensitive areas. One of the proposed routes for the pipeline addition crosses directly over one of the country’s largest fresh water aquifers, which provides drinking water to over two million people. An additional proposed route places the pipeline directly over an active seismic zone which had a major earthquake as recently as 2002. Another major environmental concern is the increase of carbon emissions or greenhouse gases which are the major contributor to global warming. Landowners are also concerned that they may have to live with the pipeline buried on their land or even worse, lose their homes under eminent domain to make room for the pipeline. The environmental risks with disastrous consequences seem to far outweigh the benefits of the pipeline. Despite the impressive size of the demonstration, the President was not in Washington to see it. -Rachel Goldstein, Legal Intern

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Survival of the Smartest

Normally you hear the phrase, “Survival of the Fittest,” and you think of savage beast or tough men, all trying to carve out their place here on Earth with either brute strength or by sheer force. I have come to realize that this old way of life has no place in modern society and that if anything on the planet wants to survive, it must become smarter. For eons the evolution of an organism hugely depended on that particular organism’s environment. This is still true today; only thing, the environment has changed in ways that nature may not have intended. This may range from large scale construction projects to the millions of miles of highway stretched across the country. As stated earlier, evolution is highly depended on an organism’s environment, which can influence nearly every aspect of that organism. Such as, weight, color, habits, food sources, reproduction, etc. Moreover, these physical changes may be necessary for that organism’s survival as it adapts to a particular environment. As noted, these are all physical changes that are usually taken note of by researchers and scientist alike. However, there is a more subtle change taking place within the animal kingdom and it has less to do with nature and more to do with mankind’s relentless ambition. I started noticing this subtle change in behavior a couple of years ago, not to say that this kind of thing has not been going on before I took notice, but it is definitely happening all around the country. I have noticed and I am sure that some of you have as well, that hawks have begun nesting in trees along the interstate highways. The curious observer will ask themselves why? Well, this is because they too have adapted to their environment, just not so much the biological environment, but their technological environment. They are not alone in this endeavor; I have also noticed that coyotes routinely wait around in the median area of the highways at night as well. Hawks patrol the highways during the day and wait for cars to run-over other animals, which then become fast food for them, coyotes take the night shift and basically do the same thing. On one hand, this has made hunting a lot easier for them, but on another hand, it may spell disaster. The real question is: “Are we destroying so much of their natural habitat that they are forced to feed off the dead, or have they simply adapted?” Here are two different animals faced with similar issues, but both of which chose to adapt, but I am not sure if their survival depended on this chosen adaptation or was it simple convenience. The reason I say that is that I have also noticed that spiders have begun to build webs around lights, which happens to be a great place to find insects, thus making their job of hunting easier as well. These subtle changes in their (hawks, coyotes, spiders) behavior can be viewed as mere coincidence but I like to give them more credit than that. I believe these are signs of intelligent adaptation to survive in an ever changing environment. Reiterating what I said earlier, it is now “Survival of the Smartest.” Brute strength and sheer force alone will no longer guarantee an organism’s survival. This holds true among all organisms. The barbaric age is over and intelligence is on the rise. So next time you’re driving down the highway, take a look around you, evolution is taking place right before your eyes. -Andre’ Fletcher, Legal Intern

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Preventing Ink Stains on our Environment

Did you know it can take up to 450 years for an ink cartridge to decompose in a landfill? Ever wonder what to do with your old printer ink cartridges? Recycle them so they do not end up in a landfill! There are a number of online companies and local retailers that will recycle your old printer ink cartridges for you, along with other unwanted household electronics. Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection website lists twenty different resources for information on recycling old ink cartridges. On this website you will find companies that will conveniently send you paid postage to mail your cartridges back to them for recycling, free of charge. Others pay you for your empty cartridges and some use the proceeds for donations to charitable organizations. In addition to mail programs, many ink manufacturers have drop-off locations in town where you can drop off your empty cartridges for recycling. Dell uses local Goodwill locations for their Reconnect drop-off sites for both cartridges and old computer equipment. Check your ink cartridge manufacturer’s website for specific details. Also, check with your local office supply retailer. Most Best Buy stores maintain an in-store kiosk where you can drop off your empty cartridges. Staples also has a recycling program and will reward your eco-conscious efforts with two bucks back in Staples Rewards for each cartridge recycled (limit ten cartridges per customer, per month). No matter which route you choose for recycling your empty printer ink cartridges, do your part to keep them out of the local landfills! -Rachel Goldstein, Legal Intern