Reaction swift and sour to EPA water rules

By Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida and Posted by Aaron Deslatte
January, 15 2010 3:47 PM , ORLANDO SENTINEL

On Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a set of proposed numeric standards for phosphorus and nitrogen levels in Florida’s lakes, rivers, streams, springs and canals. The proposal comes in response to a consent decree reached by the agency last year with environmentalists frustrated over a lack of progress in enacting tougher water quality standards.

Environmentalists hailed Friday’s proposed rules as a “first step” in reversing the degradation of Florida water bodies they say have been brought on by industry, agriculture and growth.

“These standards aren’t as stringent as we would like, but they are a huge improvement,” said David Guest, attorney for the public interest law firm Earthjustice. “All you have to do is look at the green slime covering lakes, rivers, and shorelines during our warm months to know it is worth the investment to reduce fertilizer runoff, control animal waste better, and improve filtration of sewage.”

Business groups and agricultural interests, in contrast, condemned the proposed rules as a “de facto water tax from Washington” that will cost jobs, hinder growth and cripple the state’s agriculture by imposing expensive and unreachable standards.

“These regulations have been driven by litigants and bureaucrats working behind closed doors rather than openly through the people’s elected representatives,” wrote the group Don’t Tax Florida, a coalition including some of Florida’s largest business and agricultural groups. “Attempting to comply with these federal regulations – which in some cases will prove technically impossible – will cost tens of billions of dollars.

In November, U.S. District Court Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that a 2009 consent decree penned between the EPA and environmental groups including the Florida Wildlife Federation was both reasonable and valid.

The environmental groups had filed suit in 2008 arguing that regulators had failed to enforce provisions of the federal Clean Water Act, despite a ruling in 1998 ordering states to comply with an EPA edict to set verifiable limits on nutrient discharges that are largely responsible for algae blooms and other degradation of Florida’s inland waters.

Florida officials argued that the Department of Environmental Protection had created more flexible narrative standards that were more suited to Florida’s diverse assortment of freshwater bodies, from black water rivers of north Florida to the canals dredged in the southern part of the state.

Hinkle’s ruling was a defeat for a coalition including agricultural interests, power companies, fertilizer manufacturers, the South Florida Water Management District and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumers Services. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democratic candidate for governor, also called on the judge to give Florida more time.

“They don’t have enough data to put together statewide standards,” said Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers and chairwoman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee. “To expect someone to come up with levels for each body by an Oct. 1 deadline is troubling at best.”

Williams said she plans to file legislation to set up a task force to review EPA’s proposal. Meanwhile, Gov. Charlie Crist said the state may challenge the EPA ruling once it sees where the upper limits on nutrients – or pollution – are set. Any challenge would likely be filed after the proposed nutrient levels take effect Oct. 1.