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Lawsuit targets sewer discharges in manatee deaths

Expedition member Joe Guthrie dives into Manatee Springs, along with photographer Carlton Ward Jr.
Expedition member Joe Guthrie dives into Manatee Springs, along with photographer Carlton Ward Jr.

After a record number of manatee deaths last year, an environmental group has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the state is violating the Endangered Species Act because of septic tanks and sewage-treatment plants discharging into the Indian River Lagoon in Brevard County.

The Indian River Lagoon is a vital habitat for manatees, particularly during the winter. But many manatees have died of starvation because of a lack of seagrass, which is a key source of food.

The lawsuit, filed Friday by the non-profit group Bear Warriors United, alleges that nitrogen discharged from septic tanks and sewage-treatment plants has led to algae blooms that have destroyed seagrass beds.

The group, in part, is seeking an injunction requiring the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to “permanently cease its authorization and permitting of the discharge of nitrogen from septic tanks and wastewater plants” into the northern part of the lagoon.

The lawsuit, filed in Orlando, also seeks a declaration that the department has violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing discharges. Manatees are classified as a threatened species under the act.

“DEP’s continuing authorization of septic tank and wastewater treatment plant discharge that allows nitrogen to enter the north IRL (Indian River Lagoon) despite the resulting harm to manatees constitutes irreparable harm to manatees in the north IRL, in violation of the ESA (Endangered Species Act),” the lawsuit said.

Florida had a record 1,101 manatee deaths in 2021, with 358 in Brevard County, according to Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission statistics. Through Oct. 28, it had 726 manatee deaths this year, including 337 in Brevard County.

State and federal wildlife officials took a highly unusual step last winter of feeding lettuce to manatees that congregated in warm water near a Florida Power & Light power plant in Brevard County. The feeding was designed to stave off further starvation.

An October update posted on the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s website said the state agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have continued a “multifaceted investigation” into the large numbers of deaths.

“Like last year, carcass numbers decreased over the warmer months as manatees no longer experiencing the additional stressor of cold moved to areas where forage is more available,” the update said. “FWC (Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission) researchers expect findings of chronic malnutrition in manatees to persist so long as there remains a seagrass shortage in the Indian River Lagoon. Other health threats, like watercraft-related injuries and cold stress, remain a concern.”

The Bear Warriors United lawsuit was at least the third case filed in federal court during the past year about manatee protections.

One of the cases led to a settlement, announced June 1, that requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to undertake long-discussed revisions of “critical habitat” for manatees by Sept. 12, 2024. The settlement came after the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the Save the Manatee Club filed a lawsuit against the federal agency, alleging it had not properly revised habitat designations that can help protect manatees.

Also, the three groups filed a separate lawsuit in May to try to require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to re-engage in talks with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service about water quality in the Indian River Lagoon. That lawsuit remains pending.