EPA holds hearings in Tampa on numeric pollution standards for Florida

04/15/10 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Thursday | Listen to this entire show:

Today, the Tampa City Council passed a resolution asking the Hillsborough County Commission to pass a fertilizer ordinance to reduce the amount of nutrients that seep into the county’s waterways. High levels of nitrogen can cause harmful algae blooms.

A bill moving through the state Legislature would forbid local governments from passing fertilizer ordinances.

Because the state has not done enough to rein in the pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed numeric standards for nutrients in Florida’s water bodies. Yesterday, the EPA held two meetings in Tampa about the standards.

Phil Compton is the regional representative for the Sierra Club and was at the meetings.

Well, all over Florida, and all over America, a lot of our waterways, our lakes and rivers, are sick. They’re impaired by nutrient pollution. Algae is growing in our lakes, and that’s being fed by nitrogen and phosphorous that runs off from our fields, from our farms, from cattle, and from our lawns, with residential fertilizer. So back in 1998, the EPA asked all the states to set numeric nutrient criteria. What is that? Setting a number on how much nitrogen and phosphorous you could have in Lake Thonotosassa before you have algae blooms that kill all the fish and create dead zones. Or in the Gulf of Mexico.

  • State of Florida’s been talking about it, thinking about it, studying on it, and they took over a decade to do research. But a lot of people got tired of waiting. And in 2008, the Sierra Club, Florida Wildlife Federation, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, a few other groups, asked Earthjustice to file a suit with the EPA to enforce the Clean Water Act, which was passed back in 1972. And the EPA that came into, with President Obama’s administration, Lisa Jackson, agreed with us, and said, “You know what, state of Florida? You’ve had over ten years to do this. And you’re kind of like a kid who’s been working on a term paper for months, and it’s due tomorrow, and you’re still on the Internet doing research. You gotta get all that data, and write it down, and put numbers on it, and make a commitment to cleaning up our waters. Because until we have goals that we can all work towards, to clean up our waters, they’re going to stay sick, the way they are right now.*

Q. So yesterday the EPA came to Tampa, and had a couple of public meetings. Who was there; what was that all about?

*Right. This is part of a series of meetings; they had three in other parts of the state back in February. Tuesday they were down in Fort Myers, and today they’re in Jacksonville. There were about a hundred people that spoke last night; about two hundred people were there. And two thirds of the people spoke for the EPA’s rules here. A lot of people from cities and counties and the state said, “Well, you know, we were gonna do this,” or, “Please, it’s gonna cost too much.” And a lot of polluters, a lot of people from agriculture, traditional agriculture, said, “You know, we can’t stay in business if we change what we’re doing.”*

*But there are other people, who are in the business of cleaning up the lakes, who know just how bad the problem is, who said, “Actually, this is a huge problem, and the practices that we have right now are really causing a problem.” We can make some simple changes in that. And so, what we heard last night were people saying it’s very important to Floridians to have clean water. If you can’t go swimming, if you can’t go fishing, we are incurring a huge cost. They say that it’s a tax on Florida to clean up our water. They say we can’t afford to do it. But the people that came out in Tampa yesterday and in Fort Myers, said, “You know what? We can’t afford not to clean up our water. Because Florida just isn’t a very good place to live, our quality of life isn’t very good, if we can’t enjoy our lakes and our rivers, and going out on the beach.”*

Q. And how does this tie into the local communities passing fertilizer ordinances?

It’s a big part of it. One way that we can all help to reduce the nitrogen and phosphorous runoff in whatever body of water our lawn happens to run off into—the Hillsborough River, Gulf of Mexico, whatever it is—is to not use nitrogen fertilizer in the rainy season. It rains in Florida—most of it in June, July, August, and September. So from Pinellas County down to Naples, we now have ordinances that ask people not to apply nitrogen in the summertime, to use a slow-release nitrogen fertilizer this time of year—in the spring, and again in the fall after it stops raining so much—and to take phosphorous out of fertilizer altogether. Because Florida is made out of phosphorous. We dig it up, and we ship it overseas to countries that don’t have so much phosphorous naturally in their soil; it’s called phosphate.

So we all agree, on both sides, that yeah, we can take the phosphorous out. It’s coals to Newcastle to continue to pollute our lakes and our springs, that don’t exist anywhere else in the world, with phosphorous that has covered them with algae. But in the saltier waters, nitrogen is the problem. So here in Hillsborough County, I’m happy to tell you that today, the Tampa City Council unanimously passed a resolution asking the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission to pass a rainy-season ban on applying nitrogen, in the rainy season, here in Hillsborough County—the same thing that Pinellas County did a few months ago; the same thing that’s been working in Sarasota for the last three years, where the result has been the water’s getting cleaner.

And you know what? The grass is getting healthier—because nitrogen applied in the rainy season actually encourages chinch bugs, and root-rot fungus. And they have found that they have healthier grass, and they have to replace turf a lot less often, and the cost is drastically cut. So it’s a good thing for the water, and it’s a good thing for the grass. And this is one way that people can help government to not raise our taxes to clean up the water, but actually lower our taxes. Because right now we are spending tens of millions of dollars in Tampa, Hillsborough, Pinellas, all over the Bay Area, to clean up our waters, and we just can barely scratch the surface. Because it costs a huge amount to get the nitrogen out of water. The best thing to do is keep it out of water, and this is a big part of it.

Q. And the EPA numeric standards, what’s the next step for that? How can people get involved?

Well, the EPA is offering the public—they’re in the comment period right now of these standards. They came out in draft form; they’ll go into effect in October. There’s been a huge push-back from the State of Florida from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. But for Floridians who think that it’s important to clean up our water, and that we can make some simple adjustments; we can use slow-release fertilizer on our farms the way we can on our lawns, because any nitrogen running off into the water is nitrogen that you’re wasting your money on. We can comment right now to the EPA through April 28th. And they’ll be happy to hear that they have the support of Floridians.

Yesterday, like I said, seventy people from the Tampa Bay area—from down in Sarasota, and Bradenton, and Pinellas County, Polk County, and here in Tampa—all came out. Linda Saul-Sena from Tampa City Council came out and spoke in support of this. And this is something that, you know, if you couldn’t make it yesterday, you still have a few days to let the EPA know that clean water for Florida would be a good thing to have. We haven’t had it for a long time. I live on a river close to the station where I’ve never been able to swim since I’ve been living there for nineteen years. And boy, wouldn’t that be nice? Now, we can get there. And it’d be very easy to do that.

EPA numeric nutrient criteria for Florida

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vpof ECOSWF (environmental confederation of South

I attended the epa publiic hearing in ft. myers on tues. a man from sanibel island said that Mosaic and fipr (phosphate institute)lobbiest were in Tallahassee trying to push thru legislation that would make fertilizer ordinances illegal. could wmnf find out if this is true?

Florida Legislature bills on fertilizer

Hi Tanya, Yes, that's true. Listen to this story and Phil Compton mentions these bills. Also if you listen to our newscast from Friday 4/16, we played a Florida News Connection piece on House Bill 1445 & Senate Bill 382.

Update: FL Senate strips fertilizer ordinance lang

Here's an update: Yesterday the state Senate stripped the fertilizer ordinance language out of this bill. Also, today the Tampa Tribune published an editorial against that part of the legislation: http://www2.tbo.com/content/2010/apr/20/na-an-attack-on-local-control/news-opinion-editorials/