Reel Time: Waterkeeper Alliance holding polluters accountable

Reel Time: Waterkeeper Alliance holding polluters accountable
An otherwise beautiful rainbow is framed by the results of the recent red tide. - Rusty Chinnis | Sun

The Waterkeeper Alliance is the largest and fastest growing nonprofit that is exclusively focused on clean water. The Alliance works to preserve and protect water by uniting local Waterkeeper organizations and affiliates worldwide. Their goal is to assure drinkable, fishable and swimmable water for everyone.

The organization was created by a band of commercial fishermen on New York’s Hudson River in 1966 to hold industrial polluters accountable for destroying their way of life. Their brand of hard-hitting, grassroots activism sparked a miraculous recovery of the river and inspired others to launch Waterkeeper groups around the world. There are now more than 300 Waterkeeper organizations and affiliates on the frontlines of the global water crisis. With their volunteers, they are guarding and defending more than 2.5 million square miles of rivers, lakes and coastal waterways on six continents.

Today Florida’s Gulf Coast is one of those critically endangered frontlines faced with devastating red tide events and blue-green algae outbreaks, sewage spills and willful discharges into impaired waters that are feeding unprecedented amount of nitrogen and other pollutants into local waters. Our area is fortunate to be under the auspices of Suncoast Waterkeeper. The Suncoast Waterkeeper organization focuses its efforts in an area that includes the coastal waters of Manatee and Sarasota counties, a watershed that includes all of the Sarasota Bay Estuary, the southern reaches of Tampa Bay (lower Tampa Bay and Terra Ceia Bay) and the Manatee River.

Suncoast Waterkeeper’s former Executive Director and Founder Justin Bloom is an environmental lawyer who believes in the organization’s mission statement: “To protect and restore the Florida Suncoast’s waterways through enforcement, fieldwork, advocacy, and environmental education for the benefit of the communities that rely upon these precious coastal resources.”

According to Bloom, they are more aggressive than other groups in that they are likely to litigate against those corporations, organizations and individuals that threaten water quality. Waterkeepers in general and Suncoast Waterkeepers, in particular, are small but streamlined and able to act quickly. Maybe most importantly they follow through on what they say and persevere.

“It can be personally frustrating,” says Bloom. “People have the misconception that we have unlimited resources and time. The reality is that we are tiny in comparison to the challenges we face and operate on a shoestring.”

Having said that, Bloom reiterates that the organization has been able to accomplish a lot. While he wants to see Suncoast Waterkeeper grow, he embraces the model of a small but active group that relies on volunteers and contributors.  Bloom worked for the Hudson Riverkeeper, the original and archetype Waterkeeper organization when he was in New York. One of the signature characteristics of a Waterkeeper group comes from the Hudson Riverkeeper.

The current Interim Director of Suncoast Waterkeeper Andy Mele started his environmental career in New York’s Hudson Valley with the group known as Hudson River Sloop Clearwater that was formed by Pete Seeger, the famous folk singer and social activist. There he inherited a 30-year battle with General Electric, which was responsible for dumping over a million pounds of carcinogenic PCBs into the Hudson at two GE plants.  Mele helped develop the strategy that led to the EPA forcing GE to sign a consent decree for the cleanup.

Mele sees many similarities between the way GE avoided its environmental liabilities and local municipalities and corporations like Mosaic that mine phosphate on Florida’s west coast. Mele and other partners were instrumental in preventing Mosaic from mining in the Charlotte Harbor watershed.

Mele relates, “When Suncoast Waterkeeper joined with two national groups to sue St. Petersburg and Gulfport and won, we did more to remove nutrients from coastal waters than the entire state legislature.”

Suncoast Waterkeeper recently presented a notice of intent to sue directed at Sarasota County, which they accuse of releasing hundreds of millions of gallons of partially-treated, nutrient-rich wastewater into Sarasota Bay over almost a decade.

According to Mele, “this is important because, despite the federal and state statutes that are supposed to be protective of the environment and human health, politics and special interests intervene and enforcement lags. That’s exactly what happened when former Governor Rick Scott fired most of the state’s environmental enforcement staff within the first month of his tenure. The ferocious episodes of red tide and thick mats of toxic cyanobacteria have been the predictable result.”

Suncoast Waterkeeper depends on volunteers and contributions from local communities to do its important work. This is a critical juncture for the nation, Florida, and west coast communities like Anna Maria Island. Our way of life and an economy that depends on clean water is at stake.

To lend your physical and financial support, contact Suncoast Waterkeeper at P.O. Box 1028, Sarasota, FL 34230. The organization also can be reached by phone at 941-275-2922, by email at [email protected] and [email protected], or visit the website.

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