Gov. Ron DeSantis toured the Tampa Bay region by boat Wednesday and pledged continued support for ongoing efforts to combat a red tide algae bloom killing marine life and impacting the region’s economy.
Although DeSantis said his administration is “committed to being in this fight,” environmental groups expressed disappointment that the governor has ignored calls for him to implement a state of emergency in the region. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, for example, said in a tweet on Wednesday “the politicization of the governor’s response to red tide is truly sickening.”
DeSantis, speaking to reporters during a press conference at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute in St. Petersburg, said the area appears cleaner than a week ago, as dead fish are being collected and state funds are flowing into the response to the algae bloom. The Republican governor accused his critics of politicizing the environmental disaster.
“This is something I tackled from day one in office. It’s never been political,” DeSantis said. “They were the ones who were saying, ‘you’ve gotta declare a state of emergency.’ And so, we asked them why? Well, they didn’t know why. They just wanted to do it for a political talking point.”
DeSantis pointed to $4.8 million in the current state budget allocated for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Center for Red Tide Research, adding that an emergency declaration would only be warranted if the state needed to access unallocated general revenue.
“We appropriated for this, not just red tide, but blue-green algae, because we knew that these were issues we had to tackle,” DeSantis said. “So literally, the only thing that would do is hurt some of these people, because it would send the message that somehow all of Florida has problems, when in fact the economy’s open here.”
A “state of emergency does not help our economic vitality at all,” Robin Miller, CEO of the Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce, agreed.
“What it does is it shines a light on the entire state of Florida,” Miller continued. “There could be ramifications outside of the Bay area if there is a state of emergency issued. We’ve seen it in other crisis situations.”
Backing the state’s response, restaurateur Frank Chivas said more communications is needed between government officials.
“We need to focus on projects that improve our infrastructure, because red tide occurs naturally (and) we are aiding it with runoff from sewage dumps, fertilized-laden lawns and farms that are giving these blooms a healthy diet,” Chivas said. “As of right now, I think the most important thing, or the important action is, bringing more boats that can (assist) in cleaning up. We need to get rid of the dead fish.”
Authorities have collected hundreds of tons of dead fish from local waterways and beaches, and Pinellas County health officials recently advised to avoid swimming in areas of high algal concentration.
Kriseman blasted DeSantis’ handling of the call for an emergency declaration.
“The politicization of the governor’s response to red tide is truly sickening. My team and I are focused on fixing the mess that was sent our way. When crisis comes, partisanship must go. We should always come together in times like this,” Kriseman, who was not at the press conference, tweeted as the governor’s event was set to begin around noon.
St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Ed Montanari, a Republican, was among more than a dozen state and local officials who flanked DeSantis Wednesday.
The governor emphasized that his administration has been in “constant contact” with local officials, business owners and environmental groups throughout the disaster.
Calls for an emergency order started in March following the discharge of wastewater from the former Piney Point phosphate plant in Pinellas County. Local businesses, conservation groups and the St. Petersburg City Council over the past week have escalated demands for an emergency declaration to coordinate efforts to combat and clean up impacts of the latest red tide outbreak on the region.
Red tide is a naturally occurring growth of microscopic algae that feeds upon nutrients, which could be coming from runoff from area septic tanks, stormwater systems and agricultural and residential fertilizer.
The Florida Conservation Voters organization maintains the governor can best deal with the environmental crisis by forcing polluters to mitigate their messes, requiring agriculture operations to use best practices to manage their land, and limiting runoff into waterways.
“If we aren’t preventing pollution, what are taxpayers investing in?” the organization tweeted on Wednesday.
Conservation groups including the Center for Biological Diversity last month filed a lawsuit over the potential threat from the Piney Point site, naming as defendants DeSantis; the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; HRK Holdings, LLC; and the Manatee County Port Authority.
“Tampa Bay desperately needs help cleaning up this mess, and Florida needs to get its act together and start holding polluters accountable or this will continue to be a significant threat to our way of life,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release on Monday.
DeSantis has ordered the site mothballed, noting Wednesday that $100 million in federal stimulus money has been directed to the site’s cleanup.
Congressman Charlie Crist, a Democrat from St. Petersburg running for governor in 2022, responded to DeSantis’ comments by tweeting that the Tampa Bay region needs “an emergency declaration and aid, not happy talk.”
“Maybe (DeSantis) needs a COVID test because if you can’t smell the rotting fish and red tide burn something’s wrong with your senses,” Crist tweeted.