May 18, 2017
Sen. Bill Nelson's bill would give algae blooms 'national significance'
By Isadora Rangel
Toxic algae blooms could be considered an "event of national significance" and impacted areas in coastal Florida could receive federal funds under a bill a U.S. Senate committee approved Thursday.
The measure, which now heads to the Senate floor, also would allow $22 million annually from 2019 through 2023 for research into the causes and ways to control algae blooms such as the ones that fouled Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie River last summer. Congress still would have to allocate the money, a tough task when Republicans aim to cut spending and President Donald Trump has called for cuts to the agencies that would carry out the bill.
The legislation sponsored by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to declare a severe algal bloom an event of national significance and determine how much money is needed to help the affected state or local government mitigate environmental, social and health effects. The criteria the agencies would consider include the bloom's toxicity, potential to spread, economic impacts and geographic scope. Last year's blooms spread from the lake to the St. Lucie River and eventually to Treasure Coast beaches.
“Floridians have borne the brunt of recent toxic algae outbreaks, but by law have been unable to qualify for federal help,” said Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which approved the bill on a voice vote.
In addition to asking for a 30 percent cut to the EPA and 16 percent to NOAA, Trump's preliminary budget proposal released in March also zeroes out more than $250 million in grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research and education. The proposal considered these programs a lower priority than the agencies' core functions, such as surveys, charting and fisheries management.
Nelson's bill is similar to another one filed by U.S. Rep. Brian Mast that calls for harmful algae blooms caused by Lake Okeechobee discharges to be eligible for disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Algae blooms currently aren't on the list of disasters to which FEMA responds.
The offices of Nelson and Mast, R-Palm City, have been communicating about their bills, Mast spokesman Brad Stewart said. They signed a bipartisan letter Thursday, along with other Florida lawmakers, inviting Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to visit the Everglades.
“Sen. Nelson’s bill and my (bill) share the same goal: to get federal aid for areas on the Treasure Coast hit hard by toxic algae," Mast said via a statement. "The federal government has played a big role in this problem and it’s unacceptable that they aren't taking responsibility for the damage. I look forward to working with our senators to tackle this issue.”