Congressman Rooney holds press conference after private meeting on algae, water quality

Congressman Francis Rooney held a closed door roundtable meeting Tuesday with state and local officials to discuss water quality and the algae crisis that hit Southwest Florida last year.

Governor Ron Desantis, who was in the meeting, reiterated previous commitments that state has made to dedicate more than $625 million in funding for water quality and Everglades restoration.

Specifics of the meeting were not discussed during the press conference and when asked about the public and media being excluded, Rooney said, “nobody wants to keep the media and the people away from the facts … This is a very limited circumstance.”

The roundtable discussion took place at 12 p.m. at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Emergent Technology Institute.

Rooney confirmed another meeting will be held in Naples Friday that will be open to the public. That meeting will also be streamed on Facebook.

The event will take place at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which is located at 1495 Smith Preserve Way.

In a press release, Rooney’s office said: “The mission of the roundtable is to gather local, community and nonprofit organizations to address the damaging impacts from HABs on Southwest Florida. This is an opportunity to discuss the short and long-term health effects related to exposure to HABs and other health issues that could arise for human and sea life.

“The environmental destruction created by last year’s HAB outbreak was overwhelming and required local municipalities to remove 2,000 tons of sea life from our beaches and shorelines. Grouper, manatees, dolphins and sea turtles are some of many marine creatures that washed onto our beaches and led to massive loss of income to our real estate, fishing, and tourism industries. We are still suffering from the long-term sea life dead zones.”

Staffers have not respond to questions from WINK News about whether or not a transcript or any record of the private meeting would be made available to the public following the meeting.

‘What we don’t know is the long term implications’

For the first time, we spoke directly with the Environmental Protection Agency about the impacts on your health. The EPA, along with Lee Health, both admit there is still a lot they do not know.

“The big concern around this table today is let’s determine if there’s human health exposure,” said Randy Henderson, mayor of Fort Myers, “are humans are going to suffer from the blue-green algae.”

It is a question most of us living around nasty blue-green algae and red tide want to be answered. But even the EPA said the problem can not be solved just yet.

“I think one of the challenges with these blooms is there’s still a lot we don’t know,” said Mary Walker, with the EPA.

Walker said the EPA is working on learning how exposure to this environmental disaster affects our health.

“When it comes to aerosol.. breathing it in.. there’s still a lot we need to know,” Walker said. “At EPA, we have a health advisory for drinking water for cyanobacteria.”

Cyanobacteria is blue-green algae that produce toxins.

Mayors across Southwest Florida attended the event. They said the meeting helped bridge the gap between policy and science that will lead to answers.

Lee Health President and CEO Dr. Larry Antonucci also took part in the discussion. He said doctors have to read up and data from patients are being sent to scientists working on the research to find solutions.

“We are educating our providers,” Antonucci said, “so they can recognize the symptoms and signs, collect the data on those patients, and then forward it to the appropriate professionals.”

But even he said right now, long term effects are unknown.

“What we don’t know is the long term implications are and if there are any,” Antonucci said. “That’s why we want to be engaged in collecting that data so the proper researchers could get an answer to that question.”

Reporter:Brooke Shafer
Writer:Derrick Shaw
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