EPA won't set estuary pollution standards until 2011

03/19/10 Kate Bradshaw
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On Wednesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it’s not going to enforce key pollution restrictions in the state’s estuaries. That is, not until next year.

In 2008, several environmental groups sued the EPA, claiming it wasn’t enforcing the Clean Water Act in the Sunshine State. As a result, it developed standards for the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous that can flow into Florida’s lakes, rivers and estuaries. There was talk of these numbers being enforced in October, but now standards for estuaries will be put off until next year. Earthjustice attorney David Guest says this is actually in line with the agreement that came out of the lawsuit.

The EPA had tried to get an early start on it; it was a good idea to do an early start on it. And it was left open in the proposed rule to try to finalize the estuary numbers as early as October of 2010. But it was just left open as a possibility; when we looked at the information and the science, it was our feeling that it would serve the interests of the public and serve good science to spend more time on that.

Guest said polluters will have to start cleaning up freshwater bodies in 2010, and that saltwater areas—including the delicate Tampa Bay estuary—will have pollution regulations in place by October of 2011. But Ephraim King of the EPA’s Water Division says its rules for inland waterways could help estuaries—sort of.

That rule does contain nitrogen numbers for inland waters. So when that rule is finalized this spring, it will contain the nitrogen targets, that then the Florida Department of Environmental Protection will begin its own process to implement and work with dischargers to meet.

But Guest says the efforts to protect the destination of river water—that is, estuaries—will have to wait until next year. That became official in a letter dated Wednesday from the EPA to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.

In order to protect the estuary, of course, you have to make it so that the rivers flowing into the estuaries are not going to pollute the estuaries. So you have to have some appropriate standards for the rivers to protect the estuaries. That’s what—the downstream protective value is the technical term for that. So the decision was that we won’t do estuaries this year, or the downstream protective values, which are the river restrictions to protect estuaries.

Typically, nitrogen fuels harmful algae blooms in saltwater environments, but the culprit for freshwater bodies is often phosphorous. Chris Costello, a field organizer with the Sierra Club, says this is why cleaning up a river doesn’t mean the threshold between fresh and salt water will be safe.

*You can have a beautiful, you know, clear river flowing through the center of the state, that has, you know, really high levels of nitrogen—but it really doesn’t matter for that water, and so it’s beautiful. But once that water gets down to the coastal regions, then that water becomes food for our red tide, or our Takayama tuberculata, or in Tampa Bay’s situation last summer, Pyrodinium bahamense.

*Although most environmental groups are fine with the EPA’s decision not to enforce its nutrient restrictions for estuaries earlier than scheduled, some believe pressure from Florida’s business lobby may be behind the move. Perhaps, says Costello, but that’s not the point.

I think if no one would have complained about the estuary numbers, they wouldn’t have had a reason to pull back. So it may be related to complaints, but the Clean Water Act is the Clean Water Act. We will have numeric criteria, because the Clean Water Act says that we need to have those.

That hasn’t stopped business and agriculture interests from complaining. In late January, lobbying group Associated Industries of Florida held a “funeral” for Florida’s economy, complete with a casket and flowers. In a January interview, Barney Bishop, president and CEO of the group, said complying with the new pollution standards will cost Florida businesses billions.

Companies, instead of hiring employees, will have to take scarce dollars that they may be able to get their hands on, and they’ll have to use those dollars to upgrade their facilities, so that it meets the standards that EPA is going to require.

David Guest of Earthjustice disagrees. He says Florida’s economy depends on clean water.

It’s absolutely essential, to protect the Florida economy, to stop gigantic toxic algae outbreaks from turning our rivers, our lakes and our estuaries into green slime. It destroys the tourism industry, and it destroys people’s property values. It threatens drinking water, and it threatens public health. And the folks that are saying that it’s not worth it, they have clean water, are making a terrible mistake. Clean water is worth it.

Some local governments think so as well. Pinellas County recently passed a residential fertilizer ban, and the Hillsborough County Commission is talking about doing so. Costello says that every bit helps.

Every drop of nitrogen and phosphorous that is kept from the bay will save taxpayers money in the future, because they won’t have to clean it up. And so this is a concern for everyone that lives in Tampa Bay when it comes to what each and every person can do to reduce nutrient pollution.

Next month, the EPA will be holding its second round of public hearings on the pollution standards, including one session in Tampa.

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