By Su Byron
As an environmental attorney, New College alumnus Justin Bloom, J.D. fights for regional water quality in the arena of the law.
He is the founder and current board member of Suncoast Waterkeeper (SCWK), as well as a board member of the neighboring Tampa Bay Waterkeeper (TBWK). These nonprofit organizations continually monitor the quality of Tampa Bay, Sarasota Bay and other area waterways. They gather data with a clear purpose in mind: preventing pollution and holding polluters accountable for the environmental impacts of their actions.
Bloom also rights ecological wrongs in his own legal practice. It’s a lot of work. And there’s a lifetime commitment behind it. Bloom’s devotion to environmental action and advocacy began at New College. He credits a host of instructors and mentors with setting him on the water warrior path.
“Jono Miller and Julie Morris both set great examples,” Bloom said of his fellow alumni, who co-coordinated the New College Environmental Studies Program. “Professor Sandra Gilchrist also challenged me. There are so many others who shaped who I am today.”
Bloom graduated from New College in 1991 with an environmental studies area of concentration. He combined his ecological expertise with legal knowledge at Tulane Law School, graduating with a certificate in environmental law in 1996. Environmental law was foundational to his practice from day one. The years went by. And he brought his ecological commitment back home.
In 2010, Bloom moved back to Sarasota and founded Suncoast Waterkeeper two years later. Why?
“I saw the need for an aggressive, local environmental protection organization,” Bloom said. “I’ve been working with the Waterkeeper Alliance for more than 20 years. I’d seen their model work in the Hudson Valley region. I knew it could work here.”
According to Bloom, the Waterkeeper Alliance is a global network of grassroots organizations fighting to preserve local waterways. That alliance now comprises more than 350 groups around the world, including 14 in Florida. Thanks to Bloom’s efforts, Suncoast Waterkeeper and Tampa Bay Waterkeeper are among them.
“We fight for clean water and hold polluters responsible,” Bloom said. “It’s really just that simple.”
Regional polluters bear a heavy responsibility. The Gulf Coast Florida has a long list of environmental problems, such as the “ticking time bomb” of the Piney Point phosphogypsum stack, which recently polluted Tampa Bay with millions of gallons of wastewater and triggered a massive red tide. Other issues include the deteriorating infrastructure of municipal sewage systems, overdevelopment and the deteriorating habitat. Florida’s local politicians often close their eyes to these problems and keep them closed—until disaster strikes.
This denial seems counterintuitive. Florida’s economy depends on the appeal of a subtropical paradise. That’s why tourists and retirees come here. Why foul the nest? What are our leaders thinking? According to Bloom, they’re not.
“Our regional political decision makers suffer from short-term thinking and persistent historical amnesia,” Bloom said. “The Tampa Bay ecosystem crashed in the 1970s. You’d think they would’ve learned a lesson then. They did, for a while, but quickly forgot it. Out of sight, out of mind is their default strategy.”
Suncoast Waterkeeper and Tampa Bay Waterkeeper oppose this strategy in several ways. Constant water quality monitoring is a major part of their counterstrategy. Bacterial contamination is the smoking gun of sewage spills—hard evidence that something, somewhere is wrong. The groups gather that evidence and freely share the data.
Bloom harnesses the power of the law to force municipalities, through Clean Water Act litigation, to reduce their sewage spills and upgrade their failing wastewater infrastructure. On behalf of Suncoast Waterkeeper, he has also challenged government permits for inappropriate waterfront development.
Education is also important to these local Waterkeepers’ counterstrategy. On July 17, the organizations hosted a public forum on red tide and harmful algae blooms. This event connected the dots between the recent red tide outbreaks in the regions and the massive dumping of Piney Point’s nutrient-rich water into Tampa Bay.
The war for clean water in our region rages on and, despite Bloom’s long string of courtroom victories, there are plenty of real-world defeats. You’d think Bloom would have burned out by now. He hasn’t. The battle never ends. How does he keep on fighting?
Bloom just remembers what he’s fighting for, and why.
“I embraced this fight years ago,” Bloom said. “Sarasota Bay has such incredible beauty. It’s worth fighting for. I have two young children, and I want to make sure they can share my experience of growing up by this incredible body of water.”
Interested in getting involved? Suncoast Waterkeeper is holding a “Brunch for the Bay” benefit at Sarasota Yacht Club on September 26. To find out more details, visit suncoastwaterkeeper.org.
Su Byron is the communications specialist for the New College Foundation.