EPA Tells Florida to Clean Up its Environmental Act

12/02/10 Lisa Marzilli
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The Environmental Protection Agency is finally forcing Florida to clean up its environmental act. On November 15th the agency announced new state water quality standards. The legislation has raised the ire of industry polluters and has Republican lawmakers screaming “government intrusion” and threatening litigation. Meanwhile, environmental groups are busy trying to counter the barrage of misinformation they say is being intentionally spread by opponents.

We are not trying to put all these people out of business. We want them to do their business in a different way that doesn’t allow the exportation of nutrients into the public waterways.

Manley Fuller is President of the Florida Wildlife Federation, one of the five environmental groups that filed suit against the EPA in 2008 for not enforcing the Clean Water Act in Florida. He says Florida’s had more than enough time to put standards in place that address the state’s nutrient pollution problem but has failed to do so.

We’ve had information and clear data of declining water quality in a number of our water bodies around the state for many years, some going back at least to the 1970’s. About eleven years ago the EPA found that Florida needed to establish nutrient numerical water quality standards and that process we thought was dragging on too long so we filed a legal action to speed that process up.

That victory forced the EPA to replace Florida’s vague “narrative” water quality standards with specific numeric limits on the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that will be allowed to flow into the state’s waterways. The major causes are sewage, fertilizer and animal waste and their effects are environmentally and economically devastating says Cris Costello. She’s the Sarasota regional representative for the Sierra Club, a co-plaintiff in the EPA lawsuit.

The state cannot continue down the path that we’ve been on without numeric nutrient criteria. I defy anyone who stays in Florida for more than a week to drive around and not see some water body whether it’s a ditch or a residential lake or a golf course pond that isn’t covered in algae or some invasive water plant.

How much the new standards will cost to implement depends on who you ask and what you read. A study done by the Florida Department of Agriculture says initial EPA compliance could cost over 3 billions dollars and over 14 thousand jobs. Mike Stuart, President of the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association says the EPA has taken the wrong approach to the problem.

Florida was taking a very site specific approach to this; we think that’s the right way to go. We quite frankly didn’t agree with everything that the state was doing but I think a more scientific and considered approach to this makes a heck of a lot more sense for Florida, gets us to the point we need to be from a clean water standpoint but doesn’t put a significant economic burden on agriculture and virtually every other industry in the state that the state simply can’t afford to take on at this point.

He says the EPA mandate is simply unachievable and thinks it will have devastating results.

The net result of that is going to be very costly for the state of Florida, certainly it’s going to be costly for agriculture and what we fear is that over time it will drive farmers out of business.

Stuart even links the new water quality standards to the demise of Michele Obama’s efforts to combat childhood obesity saying the government mandate could soon make produce unaffordable in Florida.

And in the law of unintended consequences one of the results of that could very well be the inability for Florida to provide fruits and vegetables into federal feeding programs and other worthwhile projects that are encouraging more consumption of fruits and vegetables, particularly among young people.

The EPA says the doomsday scenarios are “gross exaggerations” because the critics numbers are based on the most expensive water filtering technologies like reverse osmosis which is not what the standards call for. Cris Costello says the EPA has done extensive work on the projected cost of compliance which is estimated to be about $130 million dollars or pennies per day per household and she agrees that the industry claims are outrageous.

The claims that have been made by the opposition are 600 times higher than the EPA estimates in most cases. Even before the first proposed numbers came out the opposition has been saying that wastewater bills per household in Florida would go up over $700 a year, the EPA estimates appear to be $3 to $6.

The EPA announced a 15 month grace period in part, to counter the campaign of misinformation by business, industry and Tallahassee lawmakers and to allow stakeholders time to figure out the best way to meet the new standards. Governor-elect Rick Scott said recently he plans to make sure that "science not politics" drives resource protection in Florida but Cris Costello says the Governor is misinformed if he thinks the rules will be altered in any way during that time.

He’s very mistaken, the rule is the rule, it is final, it will not be changed within the 15 months – the 15 months is only a grace period for enforcement. We do not know exactly what to expect from the state but we hope that the state will understand the economic importance of clean water and do the right thing but at this point we’re not holding our breath but we do hope that they come to their senses.

In the meantime, the EPA plans to host webinars, perform site specific analysis and provide technical assistance to help Florida communities adapt to the new water quality rules.

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