Florida environmentalists tell EPA to stand-by its water quality standards

01/17/13 Janelle Irwin
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The Environmental Protection Agency set new water quality standards in November that placed numeric limits on nutrient levels in Florida waterways. Environmentalists celebrated it as a win, but now the agency is considering yielding its rules to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection whose standards would not be as strict. 150 people from environmental groups across the state are gathering in downtown Tampa Thursday during a public information session to demand the EPA not let that happen.

After years of battling, the new standards cap nutrient levels in water to what they are now. That means the water can get better, but it can’t get any worse. Andrew McElwaine is the president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

“Our Florida DEP has given us an attitude and that attitude is, ‘so the rivers aren’t swimable, they’re no longer fishable, but hey they’re no longer flammable – come on, give us a break.’”

Water contains both phosphorus and nitrogen which is OK as long as there isn’t too much of either one. In Florida, phosphorus levels are difficult to control, but nitrogen can be limited by reducing runoff from things like lawn fertilizer. The environmental groups’ press conference was moved inside because of rain. The Florida Sierra Club’s Frank Jackalone said the rain is a good thing, but it is also a contributor to nutrient level spikes.

“That rain is taking little particles of nitrogen and phosphorus on our fields and on our yards and it’s running off onto our roads, into our sewers, into our streams, our springs, our rivers, our lakes, into the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.”

When nitrogen and phosphorus levels are too high it can cause dangerous algae blooms and green slime that make the water unsafe for wildlife and people. The EPA’s standards are applied uniformly throughout the state. But if the Florida DEP takes over regulating the state’s water, standards would be applied differently depending on the water body. Jackalone said he wants to know who is going to pay for the effects of unhealthy water if the DEP doesn’t keep nutrient levels in check.

“Is it going to be the wildlife that dies because of that runoff and that green slime and those horrible algae blooms. Who is going to pay that cost? The cost has got to be paid by the polluters. Polluters must pay.”

Nutrient pollution comes at a financial cost too. Ray Judah is a former Lee County Commissioner. He said the county is in the hole $74 million to remove nitrogen from some of its waterways.

“It gets worse East of S-79 which is one of the locks in Lee County where in which by the state’s own numbers show that we are to remove 2.2 million pounds of total nitrogen out of a total amount of 9.7 million pounds of total nitrogen that comes down from Lake Okeechobee, the watershed of the Caloosahatchee River into our coastal back bays and estuaries. Folks, to remove 2.2 million tons of total nitrogen that will be required in the next basin management plan would cost Lee County taxpayers $1.3 billion.”

Nutrient pollution can also be caused by sewage and manure being dumped into waterways. Some environmentalists think the Florida DEP is pandering to deep pocketed industries who cause some of that pollution. But Winston Borkowski, a Tallahassee attorney who represents the regulated industries like power plants and agricultural businesses said that’s not true.

“The folks in the regulated community don’t undermine anything. What they do is they have to live with whatever EPA and DEP does. So, when a new regulation comes out our folks have to try to implement that and yet still keep the lights on, keep the sewage clean and keep the fertilizer coming to grow America’s crops.”

Borkowski also said the Florida DEP’s rules are better than the EPA’s because they are catered toward specific areas.

“The state rule recognizes local conditions and the federal rule does not. So, if you have a particular water body that you know because of local geography or geology is expected to respond differently to nutrients, than you wouldn’t apply a strict, generic number that somebody up in D.C. or Atlanta came up with, you would actually look at that water body and see how the biology is doing and then if the biology is fine and the water body is otherwise healthy, than you wouldn’t impose an arbitrary number on that water body.”

The information session at the Tampa Hotel in downtown today is open to the public until 7 p.m. Thursday as well as Friday from 9 a.m. until noon. The EPA is also hosting three webinars on January 22, 23 and 24.

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