Since January, toxic algae has polluted the waterways near 10-year-old Jack Benson’s home in Stuart. Frustrated with how adults were handling it, the soon-to-be fifth grader flew to Washington, D.C., to speak to Congress. Last week, he demanded they take real legislative action.
“Our river has toxic algae and is killing all our creatures, but all of the people like Rick Scott and Marco Rubio aren’t doing anything to help us,” Jack tells New Times. “I needed to go to D.C. to tell them that face to face.”
Jack is frustrated with politicians pointing fingers at one another. It’s all connected to the aging Herbert Hoover Dike, which surrounds Lake Okeechobee. The lake has to be frequently drained, which means untreated, contaminated water pours into local waterways. Though Gov. Rick Scott recently declared a state of emergency, he blamed the Obama Administration and the Army Corps of Engineers for not fixing the dike. But Congress has to approve funding for the repairs.
In the meantime, toxic algae blooms, sea grass die-offs, and fish kills are overtaking the rivers and beaches near Jack’s home. He’s saddened knowing manatees, pelicans, and other wildlife are dying.
“We might lose everything,” Jack says. “The river will become toxic mushy algae that would make all the animals trapped in it.”
Jack’s mother, Cristina Maldonado, says her family has lived on the St. Lucie River since 1975. She remembers fish kills and toxic algae blooms in the past, but never any as severe as the most recent one.
“More than seeing it, you can smell it,” she says. “It smells like death. It gets up in your sinuses and makes your eyes water.”
Jack Benson is a part of River Kidz, a grassroots coalition of children who work to protect their waterways. He has been active in defending the river since he was 4 years old. He loves to go kayaking, catch hermit crabs, and go swimming in the water, but he hasn’t been able to do that all summer because of the toxic algae. At his summer camp, he has had to go bowling instead of kayaking and rowing.
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“I’m sad,” he says. One time, he recalls, his Labradoodle accidentally stepped into the water, and he feared the dog might die. Fortunately, the contact wasn’t enough to cause any problems.
Last week, Jack and eight other River Kidz flew up to D.C. and met with Congressman Patrick Murphy. Then Jack spoke before a panel about his frustration. He also met with U.S. Senator Bill Nelson. But the boy really wanted to speak to Senator Marco Rubio, whom he knew had a son his age.
“He wanted to make it personal to Senator Rubio,” his mom says. “Rubio hasn’t been much help for us, but maybe if he realizes that he has a kid the same age as Jack...”
The River Kidz were sad that Marco Rubio couldn’t meet with them, but when Rubio was in Stuart a few days later, he briefly spoke with the kids. Jack had prepared a speech, but there wasn't enough time for him to read it to Rubio, so he gave it to the senator as a letter: “I was nervous,” Jack says. “They said they cared, but it hasn’t gotten any better.”
His mother adds: “Unfortunately, the kids in this town are well-educated and totally get it. What they don’t understand is why the policies don’t change.”