Development May Spread Old Pesticides Indeed I found this to be the case in Florida’s Lake Apopka a few years ago. A sad story, but maybe we learned something. Lessons from Lake Apopka by Ted Williams The fish eaters had started dying early last October—white pelicans, great egrets, great blue herons, ring-billed gulls, wood storks. They were still dying on March 25 when I walked along the dike that separates 13,000 acres of farmland from 31,000-acre Lake Apopka, Florida’s most polluted large water body. Already I’d seen two buzzard-picked pelican carcasses and a great blue that hadn’t been dead 24 hours. A great horned owl and a bald eagle had just expired, and a peregrine falcon would go down the following week—ominous signs because they suggest secondary poisoning from eating dead or moribund birds. Making the dieoff all the more poignant was the beauty and productivity of the place. Red-winged blackbirds shouted cheerfully. Tree swallows in great, dark clouds swirled over young grass. Palm and yellow-rumped warblers wafted through the lush willows that line the lake’s north shore. Great blue herons billowed out of drainage ditches, shaking their tails and tucking in their pterodactyl necks. Ospreys, clutching tilapia (an out-of-control fish from Africa), hunched on moss-draped snags. Marsh hawks dipped low over newly fallow fields, wings wobbling in the wind. In the big canal that collects water from the lake, coots and Florida gallinules picked their way over water hyacinths and dollar weed; gar cruised just below the surface; alligators and Florida red-bellied turtles surveyed me with shrewd, half-closed eyes; and on the banks anhingas and cormorants stood priest-like, holding open their black wings. On December 20, 1998 members of the Florida Audubon Society and the Florida Ornithological Society had observed 174 bird species in these fields, more than had been recorded at any other non-coastal site in 99 years of Christmas bird counts. There was even talk of nominating the area as “a site of international significance” (over 100,000 shorebirds seen annually). One of the great blues wasn’t flying, just standing bow-legged on the bare dike. I’d been asked by Harold Weatherman -- the heavy-equipment operator who works for the local farmers and who has somehow wound up in charge of the rescue operation -- to bring him any ailing birds I could catch. As I eased toward the heron it walked toward the canal like an old man with gout. From a distance of three feet I made a lunge for the neck, came up only with a handful of unfurled wing, then fell in the mud. The bird mustered barely enough strength to flap to the other side of the canal. Just as well that it die with dignity. Rehabilitation hasn’t been working. Of the roughly 150 large, fish-eating birds Weatherman has turned over to the Florida Audubon Society Center for Birds of Prey all have died save two white pelicans. “I can still close my eyes and see fields full of pelicans kicking and twitching,” he told me. “I felt so sorry for them. Sometimes I’d have one under each arm, and they’d be dead before I got back to the truck. It was heartbreaking.” Later he showed me a video he’d taken of hundreds of pelicans in a ditch, glutting themselves on tilapia. The ditch was so full of birds that hundreds of others had to wait their turn on the road. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the birds contain concentrations of organochlorine pesticides that are off the charts—specifically, DDT, its breakdown product DDE, Toxaphene and dieldrin. For example, one bird’s fatty tissue had 10,000 parts per million DDE. *That’s one percent.* Many of the herons and pelicans Weatherman picked up were convulsing and bleeding from the eyes and beak, classic symptoms of organochlorine poisoning. Was someone still using these banned poisons? Was there an illegal dump that no one knew about? Almost everyone I talked to said they couldn’t imagine how there could be enough residual pesticide in the soil to kill all these birds. At this writing the body count stands at over a thousand, mostly white pelicans but including at least 34 wood storks, an endangered species. That’s probably a tiny fraction of the actual death toll because most poisoned birds are never found. In one exercise I participated in three years ago at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland, Fish and Wildlife Service instructors scattered 100 bird carcasses over six acres of closely mown field. Three days later 15 searchers could find only 11. A scarlet sun was sinking into Lake Apopka when I spotted three human figures backlit on the dike. They were the criminal-investigation team from the Fish and Wildlife Service -- special agents Frank Kuncir, Bruce Corley and Jack Baker. Kuncir, in charge of the operation, had landed a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter in the middle of about 6,000 pelicans and 1,500 wood storks. “They didn’t even flush,” he told me. “I could walk right up to them and tap them on the beaks.” “What’s going to happen to them?” I asked. “They’re going to die,” he said, adding that dead pelicans were showing up as far away as Mississippi and Louisiana. “This didn’t have to happen. It’s the worst human-caused disaster affecting migratory birds and endangered species that I’ve seen in twenty-seven years of wildlife law enforcement.” Worried about possible human exposure, Kuncir had pulled his people off the fields four days earlier. But the Mexican farm workers, now unemployed, show no such concern even though the fields have been posted, gated and plastered with signs that read, in Spanish and English “Warning the fish in this canal may be contaminated. Do not handle or eat." The workers, many with large families, keep sneaking in to catch the superabundant tilapia. On the morning of March 26 Weatherman found a throw net in a canal, abandoned the night before apparently by someone we had scared off. Special Agent Corley, who wanted fish for pesticide sampling, asked Weatherman to net some. With one throw he caught so many he couldn’t lift the net. Speaking of the danger more eloquently than any sign was a sick great blue heron not ten feet from the throw net. Weatherman stood across the canal from me on the west side, toting a “Weatherman Special” (a long fiberglass pole with a noose at the end made of wide strap material so it won’t choke the birds). “Can you see that bird?” he called. When I directed him to the cutbank under which the heron was hiding he slipped the noose over its neck and pulled tight, then hauled it squawking and flapping to high ground. ******** In the 1940s Lake Apopka had been clear and healthy, offering what was said to have been the best bass fishing on the planet. It supported 29 fishing lodges and attracted anglers from all over the world. The beginning of the end came in 1941 when, supposedly for the war effort, the Florida Legislature created the Zellwood Drainage and Water Control District by which vegetable farmers could dike off and drain the saw-grass marshland that had acted as the lake’s kidneys. The thick, peaty soil of the resulting “muck farms,” as they came to be called, was some of the most fertile in the world, often allowing three crops a year. For half a century the farmers blitzed the former lake bed with pesticides and fertilizers, irrigating the fields, flooding them in summer for weed and nematode control, and continuously pumping polluted water into the lake. Fouling it further was orange pulp from the citrus industry and sewage from the city of Winter Garden. When the massive phosphorus and nitrogen load produced impenetrable carpets of alien water hyacinths the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers clicked the nutrient-recycling process to fast-forward by spraying them with herbicide. Suddenly free of shade, algae took over. This, in turn, set off an explosion of algae-eating gizzard shad which the state attempted to control with poison. But instead of removing the dead fish, it left 30 million pounds to fester in the lake, further speeding nutrient recycling. In the 1970s the Clean Water Act shut down the flow of sewage and orange pulp, but farm waste increased. By the late 1980s the muck farmers were averaging five million gallons of effluent per day. In 1985 the Florida legislature created the Lake Apopka Restoration Council which experimented with nutrient removal by planting water hyacinths and removing them after they’d matured and by netting out gizzard shad. It also ordered a state agency called the St. Johns River Water Management District to develop pollution standards for muck farming. Two years later the legislature directed St. Johns to finish the council’s work. Hyacinth planting and removal proved inefficient, but shad netting showed promise. Today St. Johns pays commercial fishermen about $300,000 to remove two million pounds of shad a year which they then sell as crab bait. Naturally, it made no sense to be hauling out nutrients while the muck farms were pumping them back in. So in 1988 St. Johns asked the farmers to put in settling ponds and remove phosphorus by treating effluent with alum. Duda and Sons, Inc. complied voluntarily, spending over $2 million to make ponds on 350 of its 3,500 acres and reducing its phosphorus discharge by 70 percent. But the 12 farms that made up the 9,000-acre Zellwood district came up with all sorts of reasons why they couldn’t comply, even though the public was going to foot two-thirds of the bill. When St. Johns ordered the clean-up Zellwood hired lawyers, and in 1995 got the effluent standards overturned on the technicality that St. Johns lacked authority to give such orders. With that, Florida lawmakers unanimously passed a bill granting that authority and appropriating funds for St. Johns to buy out the muck farmers and restore the land to lake and marsh. The state could have used eminent domain, but government seizure of family farms doesn’t play well in court or in the press these days. So the farmers got fair-market value -- $91 million for 12,500 of 13,000 acres and all their equipment, $20 million of it from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wetland Reserve program. St. Johns hopes to acquire the remaining 500 acres for $11 million. Because it wanted to control weeds St. John flooded 6,000 acres of the Zellwood district last summer and fall. So, for the first time ever, water remained on the fields in the winter when big numbers of white pelicans show up in Florida. That probably explains why no one had seen dead birds around the muck farms before. St. Johns knew there were lots of pesticides in the soil, but it didn’t think there were enough to kill birds directly. A risk assessment it had commissioned proclaimed that the pesticides were unlikely to do more than mess up reproduction. Moreover, St. Johns had identified such hot spots as pesticide storage and loading areas and, as a condition of sale, made the muck farmers clean them up. Declares project manager Dave Stites: “We’ve purchased over 120,000 acres of farmland without any incidence of bird mortality. And in the Apopka basin we’ve *flooded* 3,500 acres already without incident.” Florida’s five water districts have set a national standard for wetlands restoration, and St. Johns has led the districts. Stites claims his agency had no way of predicting the bird kill, and perhaps he’s right. ******** On the other hand, there had been a few hints. For example, in the mid-1980s the lake’s alligator population crashed. Only four percent of the eggs were hatching as opposed to 75 to 90 percent for healthy lakes. The few alligators that did hatch had malformed reproductive organs and gross hormonal imbalances. Researchers at the University of Florida suspected endocrine disruption by organochlorine pesticides, especially after high levels of DDT and DDE turned up in alligator tissue and lake sediment. When the researchers painted these poisons on healthy alligator eggs they replicated the hatching failure and birth defects. In 1993 St. Johns flooded muck farms around Lake Griffin, into which Apopka discharges. Immediately, hatch rates of alligator eggs dropped to four percent and largemouth bass became sterile. Now Lake Griffin’s alligators and soft-shelled turtles (a fish-eating species) are dying, and no one can say why. To review the risk assessment for wetland restoration around Lake Apopka the state had hired Tim Gross, a toxics expert then with the University of Florida, who had been studying reproductive failure of fish and alligators in Lake Griffin. Gross urged St. Johns not to flood the muck farms for several years and then to monitor meticulously for pesticide contamination. “The [state] game and fish department and I sat down with them over a year ago, and our recommendation was let the land go fallow for a few years,” he says. “There’s no hurry to restore the wetlands. Just stop farming it, let it grow, flood it gradually…. How they screwed up is that that they did not monitor what was going on.” “We had intended to monitor for risk,” says Stites. “But things kind of got ahead of us.” Six months before the dieoff St. Johns’ own biologist, Roxanne Conrow, had issued this warning: “While the muck farm areas around Lake Apopka may be a convenient site to view a variety of wintering shorebirds, this birding enthusiasm should be tempered with the knowledge that year-round use of pesticides on these sites may have a very negative impact on many varieties of birds…. Restoration of those sites will no doubt result in a dramatic change in the species and numbers of birds using the area. We likely will see an increase in birds adapted to deeper marsh habitats, and many of these species also include migratory populations such as the American white pelican.” But St. Johns had been under pressure to show taxpayers something for their $91 million investment. Some of that pressure came from the Florida Audubon Society which, in a report published two weeks before the birds started dying, downplayed the danger and criticized Conrow for presenting “no data or references to support these statements.” Less understandable and forgivable than this kind of public impatience and government acquiescence is the fact that no state or federal agency is managing the site to minimize bird exposure. The ditches, still rippling with toxic tilapia, apparently can’t be completely drained. But why have they been allowed to serve as feeding stations for wading birds for half a year? Biologists say killing or netting the fish is impractical, and maybe it is; but as Florida Audubon’s chief ornithologist Gian Basili observes, “It’s pretty hard to believe that if we can fish out George’s Bank we can’t get rid of Zellwood’s tilapia.” ******** Across the street from the office of the Zellwood Drainage District is a national-priority Superfund site connected to the former muck farms by ground and surface water. Toxic wastes washed from drums, including organochlorine pesticides, had been stored in unlined evaporation/percolation lagoons. It’s unlikely that the site is responsible for the bird deaths, but as I inspected it I contemplated the difference between remediation of agricultural and industrial pollution. Basically, it is this: When industry makes a mess we call in the Superfund cops, take away the land and make it pay for a clean up; when agriculture makes a mess we call in the appraisers, pay it fair-market value for the land and clean up after it. “We did everything the way the people who manufactured the pesticides recommended,” says lifelong Zellwood muck farmer Jan Potter, 54. “We should not be held liable. It was the manufacturers; it was the government.” Maybe so. And yet there’s no denying that the muck farmers have done pretty well for themselves. First they were given the public’s marshland and allowed to drain it, thereby reducing Florida’s second biggest lake to its fourth. Then they were allowed to destroy the rest of the lake and poison its former bottom. Last year, having profited from the public’s lake bed for more than 50 years, they unloaded it on the public at the appraised value of pristine farmland. When St. Johns required them to clean up their pesticide hotspots as a condition of sale, they set a limit on how much they’d spend—usually five percent of the purchase price. And now St. Johns is building a 3,500-acre marsh “flow-way” -- an artificial kidney to replace the one the farmers destroyed -- to clean up the lake the farmers polluted. Lake water will be pumped through the marsh, its nutrients filtered and taken up by plants, then discharged back to the lake. That already has cost the public $20 million, and will cost it $10 to $14 million more. It’s easy to learn the wrong lessons from all this, and *The Orlando Sentinel* is busy teaching them. The newspaper has tirelessly editorialized against public purchase of the muck farms—even the 500 acres that remain—calling it a “polluters’ relief bill.” It certainly is, but it doesn’t follow that the purchase was ill-advised. Remarks Jim Thomas, president and founder of Friends of Lake Apopka, the citizens group that never gave up on the lake: “We’ve watched the farm lobby win everything. For forty years we’ve tried to regulate the discharges, and we’ve lost every battle. All of us agree that this was too much money to pay the farmers; but considering the cost of endless court battles, it’s the cheapest way.” “Bite the bullet; pay for it; fix it,” advises Jim Swann, who just stepped down from the St. Johns board of directors after serving ten years. “You don’t make agriculture do anything. You pay for doing it for them. It is their congressionally-given right to do wrong, and if you want to change it, you pay.” The on-going bird mortality is an expensive lesson. But the real tragedy hasn’t happened yet and won’t if environmentalists prevent the public and legislators from learning the following wrong lessons: 1. that the Wetland Reserve program is a bad deal for wildlife; and 2. that “more research” is needed before public agencies can secure ruined wetlands for restoration. The research can come later—before flooding. But if agencies like St. Johns wait to acquire land until scientists say they’ve studied potential problems sufficiently, they’ll be waiting forever. Meanwhile, news from Lake Apopka is about to get a whole lot better. Now that the cascade of pesticides and nutrients has been shut off, genuine restoration can get underway. “This bird dieoff,” says Dave Stites, “is a bump in the road, not the end of the road.” On my last day in Florida I stopped in to visit the guru of American sweet-corn growers -- veteran muck farmer and crop duster Carroll Potter, Jan’s father, not yet retired at 83. He said he couldn’t imagine how there could be enough residual pesticides in the soil to kill all these birds. It had been difficult for me to imagine, too. But as he talked it got easier. Potter recounted how the super-fertile former bottom of Lake Apopka had become the sweet-corn capitol of the world. When his friend Pearl Stutzman first planted sweet corn here in 1946 his neighbors told him you couldn’t grow sweet corn in Florida, that the corn-ear worms and fall army worms would “eat it up.” When he started dusting every three days with DDT they told him there was no way you could put that much pesticide on any crop and make a profit. But 75 percent of his ears turned out to be worm free, and when he sent them to New York City he got $5.75 a crate. “That was unheard of,” said Potter. “When Stutzman dusted every other day he got 85 percent control. Finally, he dropped it down to every day and got 98 percent. Didn’t even have to grade it. Pretty soon everyone had a patch of sweet corn.” Potter is the only original muck farmer who still drives a tractor and the only original crop duster who can still pass a flight test. “It was all that DDT I inhaled when I was young that makes me healthy,” he told me. “I believe it. Yes sir.” - 30 - From Audubon magazine