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Thick, Putrid Algae Bloom Overwhelms Miles Of Florida Coastline

Algae covered water at Stuart's Central Marine boat docks on Thursday in Stuart, Fla.
Terry Spencer
Algae covered water at Stuart's Central Marine boat docks on Thursday in Stuart, Fla.

A massive bloom of blue-green algae has hit four southern Florida counties, blanketing beaches in foul-smelling muck and raising health and environmental concerns.

The green goo along Florida's "Treasure Coast" prompted Gov. Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency in Martin and St. Lucie counties earlier this week, and he later added Lee and Palm Beach counties. Scott "blamed the federal government for neglecting repairs to the lake's aging dike that's considered one of the country's most at-risk for imminent failure," as The Associated Press reported.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and his Democratic colleague Bill Nelson both visited the impacted areas earlier this week and expressed alarm.

The bloom is caused by discharge from the polluted Lake Okeechobee, some 35 miles away. The New York Times explains:

"An aging dike system forces the Army Corps of Engineers to release controlled discharges through channel locks east and west from the lake to protect nearby towns from flooding. However, those discharges, which carry pollutants from agricultural lands that flow into the lake from the north, pour into rivers and lagoons downstream, which eventually dump into the ocean."

But when there's "too much polluted discharge," the Times reports, "the blend of fresh and salt water creates giant phosphorescent plumes of algae, making the water unsafe for human and aquatic life alike."

On Thursday, the Army Corps of Engineers said it would reduce the flow from Lake Okeechobee "beginning this weekend." In a statement, the Corps' Jacksonville District Commander Col. Jason Kirk makes the argument that they're in a difficult position. This year, he said, "our water managers have dealt with such large quantities of rain and runoff entering the lake that it would cover the entire state of Delaware." However, they felt "compelled to take action" after seeing the algae firsthand.

The Corps says it is managing a delicate balance, as spokesman John Campbell tells the Times: "We're constantly having to balance the potential of an environmental impact from releasing water against the very real public safety hazard of containing the water and the hazard that poses by putting pressure on the dike itself."

You can see the green ribbons of algae snaking along the shoreline and around docks and boats in this helicopter video released by Martin County:

And take a closer look at the thick muck here:

The Times describes local residents in St. Lucie staying indoors because of the noxious odor or leaving the area altogether to stay with friends.

Other local residents are staging protests. According to the Martin County Sheriff, thousands gathered Saturday with a straightforward message:

They want to see Florida's Legislature purchase "land around Lake Okeechobee for water storage," using "money approved by state voters for environmental projects," as the AP reported. According to member station WQCS, "There was an agreement in the works when former Gov. Charlie Christ left office in 2011," which fell through.

As WQCS reports, it's not just the smell that people are worried about. An emotionally-charged emergency community meeting on the issue packed the hall "beyond capacity at 9 a.m. on a work day with people who wanted their voices heard."

Many of these residents are worried about the health impacts of the algae and some complained of itchy eyes and respiratory problems. Former Martin County Commissioner Maggy Hurchalla told them,

"We all know there's a health risk. But unless there are a half a dozen of you willing to fall in and die, somebody's going to be saying a year from now that you were hysterical, that there's no serious problem. I think, for those of you who have read the information on toxins that come from these algaes, it is an emergency. But we're going to need the EPA, we're going to need the CDC, we're going to need all the resources of the state of Florida, and we're going to need them to work together."

The Florida Department of Health said that at high levels, this type of algae can "affect the gastrointestinal tract, liver, nervous system, and skin." It said people should avoid contact with the bloom, and adds that "children and pets are especially vulnerable.

Conservation groups are also raising concerns about the impact of the blooms on local marine life. This widely-shared video shows a manatee surfacing above the slime and getting hosed off by a local family:

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.