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Environmental groups say they intend to file a lawsuit over manatee deaths

Manatee swimming
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Said one attorney: “It is painfully clear that Florida isn’t doing what’s necessary to control the sewage and fertilizer pollution that’s wrecking the Indian River Lagoon."

Three conservation groups issued a formal notice Monday of their intent to sue the federal Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect manatees from water pollution in Florida.

As of Dec. 10, 1,056 manatees died in Florida, setting a new record. Most them starved because of algae blooms fueled by pollution killed the seagrasses they need to survive.

Thousands of acres of seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon withered because light could not reach then due to algae caused by too many nutrients in the water.

Theintent to sue notice was filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Save the Manatee Club. They asked the EPA to reassess the water quality standards with the state Fish and Wildlife Service.

“It is painfully clear that Florida isn’t doing what’s necessary to control the sewage and fertilizer pollution that’s wrecking the Indian River Lagoon,” said Earthjustice attorney Elizabeth Forsyth. “It’s time for EPA to step in and enforce the Clean Water Act for the sake of the manatees and all the other creatures and people that rely on Florida’s waterways. If watching manatees starve isn’t the tipping point for the EPA to step in, I don’t know what is.”

The intent to sue says unchecked pollution in the Indian River Lagoon — stemming from wastewater-treatment discharges, leaking septic systems, and fertilizer runoff — fueled algae outbreaks that kill seagrass and prevent it from growing back.

"Despite extensive evidence of that harmful pollution and Florida’s failure to address it," the intent reads, "the EPA approved the state’s water-quality criteria for nitrogen, phosphorous and dissolved oxygen, concluding the standards would not “adversely affect” manatees."

“It’s disgraceful that hundreds of manatees have died as a direct result of regulators’ failure to protect our water quality,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Indian River Lagoon is an ecological wonder that supports not just manatees, but green sea turtles, snook, tarpon, and a stunning diversity of marine life. The mass death of these manatees, which was completely preventable, makes it clear just how critical it is that the EPA take swift action to protect the vibrant ecosystem they live in before it’s too late.”

The notice gives the agencies 60 days to address violations of the Clean Water Act before the groups file a lawsuit.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.