Residents concerned about chemicals used to treat algae at Pahokee Marina

PAHOKEE — Algae floating in the waters inside the Pahokee Marina on Lake Okeechobee are nothing new; however, this year with lake levels having been low for some time, there are large blooms locked in stagnant water near shore inside the marina, giving off a foul stench.

Special to the Lake Okeechobee News
PAHOKEE — This is what the floating algae mats looked like on Tuesday, July 14, prior to the treatments.

On Tuesday, July 14, residents of the marina were surprised to see airboats from Applied Aquatics, a company contracted by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to treat invasive aquatic vegetation, inside the marina — not spraying but applying the contents of 50-pound bags of some unknown substance to the waters.

Said live-aboard boater Mark Miller on Friday, who saw them arrive and begin working on Tuesday: “I was really impressed at the fact they had two airboats. There were about 10 young guys, and they’re running around with these 50-pound bags of whatever it was. When they couldn’t get back here with the boat (into the stagnant areas), they used, like, a grass seed spreader and they put the stuff out, some white stuff.”

He left the marina after they started in order to get away from the pervasive odor hanging in the air from the algae. Miller said there were some floating islands or mats of algae blooms in Lake Okeechobee just outside the marina, and when the wind was right, stinky vapors would blow overhead.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
PAHOKEE — “You could walk across this stuff,” said one tenant live-aboard boat owner at the Pahokee Marina. This is how the algae bloom looked on Friday, July 17, three days after Applied Aquatics came in.

“I was in Okeechobee all day, came back about 6 o’clock and I went, ‘Oh my god, why would you experiment with the entire 720,000 square feet of surface within this marina?!’ They could’ve gone up to the far north end, where nobody lives, where the docks are broken and there’s no electric.” Miller said he was under the impression it was some sort of experiment.

“They shouldn’t have done this where people are living,” he said. “We had a little bit of green,” he added, gesturing toward the mists swirling in the water near boats in the docks area. “It’s naturally occurring like this … it’s everywhere, in every lake in America, and it never goes away.”

Miller counted 10 full-time residents including himself who live aboard their boats inside the marina, and a few are elderly couples who have health troubles, including respiratory conditions.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
PAHOKEE — Algae is suspended in the water column throughout the dockage area at the Pahokee Marina.

Asked if it’s affected his health (he is handicapped and walks with a cane), he said: “Yesterday (Thursday) when I walked out on the dock, I felt very faint and lightheaded and weird when walking this 350 feet from my boat out to the car. I thought I was going to pass out. Sat down and I drank a Coca-Cola, then went inside and closed all the doors on the boat, and I was fine after about 90 minutes. My A/C doesn’t draw any outside air into the system. (A friend) said, ‘Go to the hospital,’ and I thought about that but with COVID, I’m safer here.”

That night, he and some friends made a few calls to government agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to report the application of the substance. Later, a Florida Department of Health (FDOH) inspector from the Palm Beach County office in Belle Glade came out to the marina, talked with Miller and investigated. Reached on Monday, July 20, Floyd Williams, FDOH environmental manager for the PBC Division of Environmental Public Health and Facilities Programs in Belle Glade, said he observed “pretty much what you saw.”

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
PAHOKEE — According to one observer, the stench is akin to the odor you’d sniff if you surprise a surfeit of skunks in the Northwoods.

He said he explained to Mr. Miller that the propriety of Applied Aquatics’ application of the chemical(s) they used “would come under the purview of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.” He did not conduct any direct tests himself, saying “the agency that would test that would be DEP.”

Mr. Williams said he only visited to assess any threat to the public health, and was working on his report.

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