Environmental groups laud EPA setting limits for nutrient runoff polluting Florida waters

By MITCH STACY, Associated Press Writer
August 21, 2009 1:13 p.m.

CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — Environmental groups on Friday lauded long-awaited action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set legal limits for farm and urban runoff polluting Florida’s waterways, limits that could serve as a model for other states. 
A consent decree signed Wednesday settled a lawsuit filed last year by the Sierra Club, Florida Wildlife Federation and others against the EPA seeking to get the federal agency to set numeric standards for runoff such as fertilizers and animal waste.

The settlement marks the first time the EPA has forced numeric limits on so-called nutrient runoff on a state. A handful of other states, at the urging of the EPA, have already acted to set their own standards. The rest have only vague limits on waste and fertilizer pollution, but many of those are in the process of developing numeric limits. 
Environmentalists say rain sends the runoff into rivers and lakes, nourishing algae blooms that poison the ecosystems. 
The agreement means "real protection for Florida’s waters," said Earthjustice attorney Colin Adams, speaking at a news conference in Tampa. The public interest law firm had filed the suit in federal court on behalf of the environmental groups. 
"For the first time, EPA will begin the process to address massive fertilizer and human and animal waste pollution problems that increase dead zone areas along practically every U.S. coastline," Adams said. 
He said numeric limits, which still have to be determined, will make it easier for the government to go after major polluters and help farmers regulate agricultural runoff. 
The groups credited President Barack Obama’s administration with quick action on the matter after years of what they called "foot-dragging" by the Bush administration. 
The EPA acknowledged in a statement Friday that standards are necessary "to protect Florida waters from the impacts of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution." 
The statement said the agency will work closely with scientists from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to develop "scientifically defensible" water quality standards. 
Under the settlement, the EPA has until Jan. 14 to propose the new pollution limits for Florida’s lakes, rivers and creeks, and until October 2010 to finalize the rules. 
The Sierra Club’s Cris Costello said the agreement was expected to move the EPA to set similar standards in other states. 
"We believe this should and will be held up by the EPA as a model," she said. 
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said in a statement Friday that it has been working for years to establish its own guidelines for such runoff. In a 2008 report, the department concluded that half of the state’s rivers and more than half of its lakes had poor water quality. 
"To ensure that there is no duplication of work, we will continue to work with EPA in the same manner they have worked with us," the statement said. 
The EPA acknowledged more than 10 years ago that Florida needed to promptly develop runoff standards to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act. Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972 "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters." 
The agency noted then that "nutrient pollution is the leading cause of impairment in lakes and coastal waterways." The agency also said the nutrients in runoff had been linked to so-called "dead zones" in the Gulf of Mexico. 

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