Hillsborough EPC wary of state bills that would dismantle environmental regs

04/21/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Some Tampa residents may have noticed a rank scent in the air after a ruptured sewer pipe leaked almost six million gallons of wastewater into area wetlands. The outcome wasn’t a worst-case scenario, but some bills in the state legislature could make such messes harder to manage in the future.

The spill, which happened in mid-March, put officials on alert after millions of gallons of raw sewage crept toward the Hillsborough River. Much of the mess bled into surrounding wetlands near I-75 and Bruce B. Downs, and was then pumped to a wastewater treatment facility. More was diverted into nearby Trout Creek, some eight miles away from the Hillsborough River. Sam Elrabi of the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission said the incident was not a worst-case scenario. There were reportedly no fish kills, and officials say drinking water remained safe, even if the spill did cause a few inconveniences.

"It smelled the first couple of days when we were out there but it tapered off and we've never seen it since then. Of course a spill like this will have reduced recreation uses. Picnicking, wading, what have you because of the potential impact to human beings."

Elrabi said timing was key – low water levels in Trout Creek kept the bulk of it from hitting the Hillsborough River, and heavy rains helped dilute whatever did make it that far. He said it was the wetlands surrounding the busted line that saved the day, and had they not been there to absorb the sludge, it could have instead hit homes and businesses.

"That big expanse, it's a huge...it acted as a filter. As a kidney filter things and what not. It filtered waste water, it mitigated the acute impact and assimilated that waste load and buffered, really, the Hillsborough River."

This may not be the case in the future. The Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, or EPC, is monitoring dozens of bills in the state legislature that may hurt the way the county protects its natural resources. One is House Bill 991, which would streamline the permitting process for those who want to develop on Florida’s wetlands. Republican County Commissioner Victor Crist said he remembers what a mess Tampa Bay was decades ago, and doesn’t want to see it regress.

"You know, I understand that we need to ... it's good to constantly review rules and laws to make sure that they're still needed and they're still contemporary with what the times are today. But we've got to be very cautious that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater here. That we still have the baselines of what are important in the areas of protecting our natural resources and that those basic guidelines remain in place and that we don't go back to where we were 20 or 30 years ago."

Republican Commissioner Mark Sharpe said the legislature’s move to limit local environmental protection to grow the economy is extremely short-sighted, since Florida’s natural environment is its biggest economic draw. He said efforts like those of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, which is celebrating its 20th year, offer huge returns on their investments.

"All these steps that are being taken to protect the Tampa Bay area, to recover the sea grass. There's a positive net result and I think it's going to be born out in economics. People want to live here. They'll want to live by the water. They'll want to see it, they'll be willing to pay a little bit more to enjoy it. So, I know that we're going to be asking you guys to find ways to do more with less but, and you've got to continue to try to find that way but also, we need you to really shout out loud if we're taking action here or action is taken up in Tallahassee which is going to negate all of the good work that you've done."

The Tampa Bay Estuary Program works to restore the health of the bay by outreach, research, and hands-on projects. Program Director Holly Greening said the nonprofit’s work has helped to reduce the bay’s nitrogen pollution by 50 percent – something that helps prevent algae from clouding the water.

"This is truly remarkable in the United States to see the sort of management and reduction, even with population growth in this area. It shows that we can have growth and protect the environment and I think that's very important."

The EPC is keeping an eye on bills they fear might compromise the nonprofit’s efforts. Republican Commissioner Sandy Murman called some of these measures draconian, and said a few would effectively do away with the EPC.

"They've got many bills that share that, well, funding. Actually they're defunding almost everything which is really, for us, not so great. Of course that fertilizer bill which is a huge bill which would weaken. I was not elected at the time but the ordinance they passed last fall. It would tremendously weaken that ordinance. And then they've had many bills go through the legislature this year that would almost do away with the EPC. It would take away all of their ability to regulate and permit."

Fewer than two weeks remain in this year’s legislative session. Other bills on the EPC’s radar are one that deals with local growth management and one that defunds an air pollution regulation program.

Previous WMNF news coverage of the EPC

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How is it that we seem to have actual Republican politicians in the Hillsborough County Commission but in the state legislature they seem to have turned into right wing ideologues?