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Using chemicals to treat Florida’s algae bloom problem is like taking aspirin for a brain tumor

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Using chemicals to treat Florida’s algae bloom problem is like taking aspirin for a brain tumor

Sep 14, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By Craig Pittman
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Using chemicals to treat Florida’s algae bloom problem is like taking aspirin for a brain tumor
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Lake Guard Oxy test on a blue-green algae bloom in the Caloosahatchee River. Source: South Florida Water Management District

When our kids were little, one of the things my wife and I taught them was the order in which they should carry out certain tasks:

Look both ways BEFORE you cross the street.

Ask permission BEFORE you take a cookie.

Finish your homework BEFORE you have a light-saber battle with your brother. (Those two plastic Star Wars toys turned out to be terrific Christmas gifts.)

Last week I heard about some people whose parents apparently did NOT teach them the proper order of things.

They work for the South Florida Water Management District, the agency that oversees water quality in 16 counties across the state’s southern tip. “Softmud,” as it’s sometimes called, is one of the state’s five WMDs, which share initials with “weapons of mass destruction.”

algae bloom
A 2018 algae outbreak in Stuart, where Lake Okeechobee water is discharged. Credit: John Moran

That coincidence turns out to be quite appropriate in this instance.

What snagged my attention was a single sentence in a story published by TCPalm.com: “The South Florida Water Management District has used Lake Guard Oxy to kill toxic algae since 2021, but only just began to study whether it’s safe for the environment.”

In my head, I heard a record scratch — and not the cool kind Grandmaster Flash used to use. I went back and read that sentence a second and third time.

It sure does sound like one of those “you should do this BEFORE you do that” situations, don’t you think? Check the environmental effects first, then if it’s safe you can carry out usage.

I tried repeatedly to get one of Softmud’s spokespeople to tell me why they did this in reverse order, but no one returned my calls. Maybe because they live in Bizarro World, they only return calls they haven’t gotten.

Listen, these toxic outbreaks are harmful to both animals and humans, so I understand the feeling of desperation, being willing to try almost anything to stop them. But you don’t want to wind up with something worse, like the old lady who swallowed a fly and wound up sending an entire zoo in after it.

Blooms of pollution-fueled blue-green algae — known among scientists as “cyanobacteria” — have become a perpetual problem all over Florida. It’s gotten to the point where we’ve got a Blue-Green Algae Task Force full of actual scientists to study the problem and recommend solutions for the Legislature to ignore.

The worst bloom was the one in 2018, when a foul-smelling green ooze forced Martin County officials to close Jensen Beach for the Fourth of July, as if there were a shark noshing on tourists. One woman told me it smelled “like death on a cracker.”

The bloom stretched for miles along the state’s Atlantic coast, coated the water in the Indian River Lagoon and the St. Lucie River, popped up on the west coast in the Caloosahatchee River and sprouted in thick layers across Lake Okeechobee, where the toxicity was 200 times what the World Health Organization says constitutes a human health hazard.

It would have been nice to sprinkle a chemical concoction on that putrid bloom and make it disappear, like a David Copperfield trick. But only if you knew doing so wouldn’t make things worse.

It turns out I’m not the only one who found this cart-first, horse-second approach odd.

Using chemicals to treat Florida’s algae bloom problem is like taking aspirin for a brain tumor
Eve Samples. Credit: Friends of the Everglades

Environmental groups and scientists have been raising similar questions for at least two years. So far, they haven’t gotten any answers from the people handing out millions in taxpayers’ dollars — which makes everyone even more suspicious.

“There’s a real risk of snake oil salesmen gaining traction here,” said Eve Samples, executive director of Friends of the Everglades.

But for now, according to longtime water scientist and former Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani, “You’re going to find people are more afraid of the algae than they are of the unintended consequences of the treatment.”

Explain Pittsburgh

I was really curious about the company making this Lake Guard Oxy stuff. The company is called BlueGreen Water Technologies. The company slogan boasts “We make water safe,” but doesn’t explain how — or for how long.

On its website the company boasts that it uses “cutting-edge technologies to selectively target and eliminate harmful cyanobacteria/algae without harming other life forms or leaving any chemical trace in the water.”

The formula mainly uses hydrogen peroxide — that stuff that transformed mousy brunette Norma Jean Baker into blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe.

And where are they producing this stuff? According to their website, the company has offices in Israel, China, South Africa — and Pittsburgh. I read that and heard another record scratch.

This is like that game they’d play on “Sesame Street”: One of these things doesn’t go with the other … .

Why Pittsburgh? Was the CEO a big fan of the Pirates, the Penguins, or the Steelers? I decided to call their Pittsburgh office and ask — except then I realized I couldn’t. The website didn’t show a phone number.

When I Googled the address, I found out why. It turned out to be a UPS Store in a shopping mall.

Instead, I emailed the company via their website. After a delay due to being on Israel Daylight Time, a corporate spokeswoman sent me a few answers about the company and its product.

“BlueGreen’s lead scientists spent years studying the behavior of cyanobacteria, ultimately concluding that a floating, time-release mode of action would enable maximum results with minimal dosage of algaecide,” spokeswoman Lucia Ross said.

The company’s products “have been deployed successfully not only in Florida, but around the world,” she said. The company has a contract with Softmud and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, but she wouldn’t say how much the company has been paid.

So far, she said, “we have not heard of anyone in Florida using our products outside of label specifications. There have been no reports of ill effects on wildlife or humans.”

However, Cassani said he’s seen no evidence that the state or its contractors have bothered monitoring for ill effects after repeatedly applying the algaecide. That’s certainly one way to avoid bad news.

I still had questions — including one big one.

How did Florida officials wind up hiring a Middle Eastern company to attack our Sunshine State water quality problems?

‘Whoa whoa whoa’

Turns out the water pollution expert who first selected this company was none other than Gov. Ron “Nobody Wants My Presidential Campaign Merchandise” DeSantis.

During his first year as governor, DeSantis made a trip to Israel and even held a Cabinet meeting there. That meeting, held in violation of the state’s Sunshine Law, was a taste of the shadowy behavior to come from our most secrecy-minded chief executive.

That’s where he first learned of the company and cut a deal with them, according to a 2021 tweet from DeSantis’ official Twitter account.

“During our Israel trade mission in 2019, I signed an agreement with BlueGreen Water Technology to bring their innovative technology to Florida and help us fight the blue-green algae blooms in our lakes and waterways,” the governor tweeted. (One response said, “What about American companies?” There was no reply.)

Ross, the company spokeswoman, said BlueGreen’s CEO “was one of close to 100 other business leaders who met with DeSantis’ delegation seeking opportunities to work with the state.”

Using chemicals to treat Florida’s algae bloom problem is like taking aspirin for a brain tumor
Eyal Harel (in brown at left) talks to Gov. Ron DeSantis (far right) and other state officials about his company’s product, Lake Guard Oxy, at a demonstration at the Caloosahatchee River in 2021. Source: DeSantis tweet

DeSantis was even more candid during a 2021 demonstration of the product at the Caloosahatchee River, where someone hoisted both the U.S. and Israeli flags.

“When I did the trade mission in 2019, meeting with these companies, there was some really cool stuff, but this company [talked] about algae,” he said then, according to the Fort Myers News Press. “I was like ‘whoa, whoa, whoa — I need that. So, we started talking.”

That discussion led to the decision to rush the stuff into use here. Why bother to be cautious about something new as long as it’s endorsed by the governor?

“It’s pretty interesting that trip has led to this,” DeSantis said, gesturing at the river. “We have resources … we just need to be sure the technology works.”

The CEO of BlueGreen Water Technologies, Eyal Harel, was there too. Although the company employs scientists, he’s not one.

According to his LinkedIn profile, he’s an attorney, just like DeSantis. His previous experience includes serving as legal counsel to the Israeli branch of China Civil Engineering Construction Corp. He also worked for a consulting firm with offices in Beijing, Tel Aviv, and Berlin (but not Pittsburgh!).

At the Caloosahatchee event, Harel talked about how his company had been repeatedly dusting the river with his product for the past month. The workers kept sprinkling white granules that would trigger the algae to —in his words — commit “collective suicide.”

“Have there been any negative side effects from the algaecide?” DeSantis asked Harel.

“No. It’s completely biodegradable,” Harel said (which was not exactly what DeSantis asked). “The active ingredient is hydrogen peroxide, which breaks down into water and oxygen and it completely disappears from the environment in three to four hours.”

However, the reporter covering the event noted that on the product’s label, “the first line in the ‘environmental hazards’ section reads, ‘This pesticide is toxic to birds. This product is highly toxic to bees and other beneficial insects exposed to direct contact on blooming crops or weeds.”

She also noted that the label — which features language approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — “warns that people handling the stuff should use personal protective equipment, including eye shields and chemical-resistant gloves.”

Harel and his employees were tossing the stuff into the water with their bare hands, the reporter pointed out. They wore no protective suits, gloves, or eye shields. Perhaps they were aware of the governor’s aversion to anti-COVID protective wear and were just trying to avoid triggering his wrath.

Two weeks later, the News-Press reporter did a follow-up story. Here’s how it started:

“After a governor’s visit, the hoisting of the Israeli flag, and multiple treatments with six tons of algaecide, the water at the W.P. Franklin Lock is still not safe. Cyanobacteria toxins in the area remain so high that Lee County’s health department is urging people and their pets to stay out of the river along the Caloosahatchee’s south shore.”

I think that’s the point at which DeSantis should have said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” But he didn’t.

An unnatural game of Wac-a-Mole

That Caloosahatchee demonstration made Cassani particularly n-n-nervous.

An odd-looking endangered species called the smalltooth sawfish (I think Fred Flintstone used it to cut wood) had been spotted in the vicinity prior to the treatments, he said. He also saw a manatee, considered a particularly threatened species these days.

No one else seemed at all concerned about the effect Lake Guard Oxy might have on those creatures, he said. No one seemed to be checking whether the not-wearing-protection contractors were following the instructions on how to apply it, he added.

“We’re not seeing any long-term monitoring,” Samples agreed.

The company first used its chemical treatment in Florida over two months in late 2020 on 2,000-acre Lake Minneola in Clermont for the St. Johns River Water Management District. The final report boasted of big success at keeping the lake bloom-free when other lakes were contending with lots of goop. But it was written by the company itself, not by the water district or a disinterested third party.

Samples pointed out that not all the algae in Florida’s waterways are bad. Some are important for the ecosystem. She sent me a link to a scientific study that says the use of hydrogen peroxide on toxic algae blooms can also harm those beneficial algae in the water.

But Florida is charging ahead with a budget that calls for spending $45 million on “innovative technologies” such as Lake Guard Oxy to treat the blooms, Samples said.

Using chemicals to treat Florida’s algae bloom problem is like taking aspirin for a brain tumor
John Cassani, retired Calusa Waterkeeper, via Calusa Waterkeeper

“You get the governor in your pocket, they give you these appropriations,” Cassani said.

Both of them pointed out that the main problem with using chemicals to fight algae blooms is that you have to keep doing it, over and over. It’s like taking an aspirin for a brain tumor. You may ease the pain but you don’t cure the illness.

“It has a temporary effect,” Cassani said. “You have to keep applying it.”

By relying solely on these treatments, Samples said, the result is “an unnatural game of Whac-a-Mole,” in which the chemicals have to be used over and over and over as the blooms reoccur.

Hiring this company to battle our algae problem is similar to DeSantis’ approach to rising sea levels. He’s all in favor of building seawalls, pumps, and pipes to handle the higher water, even though it’s only a temporary solution as the sea level continues to climb higher.

But attacking the causes, namely the burning of fossil fuels? He considers that “left wing stuff” and he’s dead set against it.

Before and after

Harel is on X, as Twitter is called these days (I like to pretend that the new name is a tribute to Malcolm X). I scrolled back through his timeline to 2019, the year he sold DeSantis on hiring his company, and was startled to find this dire prediction:

Using chemicals to treat Florida’s algae bloom problem is like taking aspirin for a brain tumor
Eyal Harel, CEO of BlueGreen Water Technologies via Linkedin

“DeSantis’ fight against algal blooms in Florida will fail,” he wrote. “There is no question that preventing raw sewage and runoffs from spilling into waterways must be addressed.”

So, here’s the CEO of the company that makes Lake Guard Oxy arguing that the state has to halt pollution at its source, rather than just treat the blooms with his product.

Ross, the company spokeswoman, told me the same thing: “Without a proactive maintenance plan or comprehensive approach, there is increased potential for blooms to reoccur at some point.”

Remember the Blue-Green Algae Task Force I mentioned? That panel made a whole bunch of comprehensive, attack-the-source recommendations to DeSantis and the Legislature.

They called for reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from agricultural and lawn fertilizer as well as leaky septic tanks, increasing water testing around pollution hotspots, and revamping the state’s flagship pollution-reduction program, which doesn’t work.

DeSantis and state lawmakers chose to adopt only 13% of those recommendations. The other 87% went into the round file.

Cracking down on polluters might hurt their feelings and make them less inclined to donate to political campaigns. Can’t have that now, can we?

Not only has DeSantis avoided that step, he’s even gone along with a sneaky legislative move to ban new local government fertilizer restrictions for a year. That stealth attack on clean water was carried out at the behest of “America’s No. 1 Lawn Co.,” TruGreen.

So, to sum up: DeSantis and our fine Legislature refuse to stop polluters from poisoning our waterways, approve a polluter’s move to block local government regulations on use of its product, and are willing to spend millions of your tax dollars on a foreign company that offers, at best, only a temporary solution and at worst causes other damage.

Maybe DeSantis and our lawmakers got a different set of instructions from their parents: Be sure you collect the money from the polluters BEFORE you approve turning Florida’s environment into a cesspool.