A documentary published this month about the summer’s widespread algae outbreak faces criticism from scientists, fishermen and farmers who say it pins too much blame on Florida’s sugar industry, and paints an inaccurate picture of Lake Okeechobee as a bubbling cesspool of “radioactive fish.”
The piece, titled “Toxic Lake – The Untold Story of Lake Okeechobee”, delves deep into Florida’s calamitous decision to reroute its natural plumbing system, as well as the robust lobbying efforts and political prowess of Florida Crystals and U.S. Sugar.
But critics argue the 10-page article and 11-minute video pay less attention to the unusual weather that super-charged the algae growth over the summer, or to where the pollution that seeded the St. Lucie River slime originates. The story, which can be found at toxiclake.com is labeled an investigation by The Weather Channel.
“It just seemed like there were a lot of things in the story pointing back to sugar, and that is a distraction,” said Nyla Pipes, executive director of the One Florida Foundation, a nonprofit group focusing on water issues. “People want a boogeyman, but it’s a disservice to Floridians because you can’t point fingers at one industry.”
Maureen Marshall, vice president of corporate communications for The Weather Company, which owns the name The Weather Channel, said no one was available to comment about the Toxic Lake documentary. Kait Parker, a former WPTV meteorologist who helped report the piece says on her Facebook page that she is doing more interviews and that “not every answer and concern can be spelled out in a 10 minute video.”
More than 90 percent of the phosphorous and nitrogen-laden water that feeds the cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, flows into the lake from the north. The sugar fields are south of the lake.
In weeks leading to the July 4th holiday, lake water discharged because of record rainfall mixed with the local water in the St. Lucie estuary basin, which includes pollutants from hundreds of thousands of septic tanks. The combination overwhelmed the natural salinity balance, allowing the algae to explode into thick green mats.
Those details are included in the written Toxic Lake article on page 9 and 10 after nearly three pages covering the political clout of Florida Crystals, sugar industry campaign contributions, and controversial U.S. business policies that govern sugar.
In the video, a graphic shows pollution flowing into the lake from the north and the south, saying; “from the south, excess water from Florida sugarcane fields gets pumped into the lake.”
But so-called “back-pumping” from the south is rare and approved only in emergencies when flooding of lake-area communities is feared. Since 2008, back pumping has happened eight times, four of which were following heavy rains from tropical storms, according to the South Florida Water Management District.
After record El Nino-influenced rainfall in January, including 6 inches in a 24-hour period in the Glades, four days of back pumping was allowed.
“This entire mess, it kind of all goes back to sugar,” Parker says in the video.
Some scientists disagree.