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DEP to drop controversial water pollution regulations and start over

By Craig Pittman | Times Staff
Published: February 9, 2018 Updated: February 9, 2018 at 07:15 PM
The pollution regulations that are being withdrawn marked the first update to the state's water quality standards in 24 years. But when they were first unveiled in 2016, critics said they would allow polluters to increase the level of toxic chemicals they dump into Florida rivers and lakes. [Times files]

Florida regulators are withdrawing a set of controversial standards for how much pollution can be dumped into the state’s waterways.

The standards drew strong opposition from environmental groups, local governments and Native American tribes. Now the Department of Environmental Protection says it will start over and work with one of those groups to produce new pollution standards.

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"DEP has identified an opportunity to partner with the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes to gather additional data as we move forward to protect Florida’s water," agency spokeswoman Lauren Engel said in an e-mail to the Tampa Bay Times .

She said that with their help, the DEP wants to "update the state’s water quality criteria to ensure the department is relying on the latest science."

Attorneys for the Seminole Tribe did not return a call seeking comment Friday. No one at the Miccosukee Tribe offices answered the phone.

The pollution regulations that are being withdrawn marked the first update to the state’s water quality standards in 24 years. When they were first unveiled in 2016, critics said they would allow polluters to increase the level of toxic chemicals they dump into Florida bays, rivers and lakes. Those most at risk would be children and people who eat a lot of seafood.

The 2016 standards, which were strongly supported by business and manufacturing interests, called for increasing the number of regulated chemicals allowed in drinking water from 54 to 92 chemicals and also raising the allowed limits on more than two dozen known carcinogens.

The DEP defended the new standards by saying they were actually stricter than federal requirements and had been reviewed by scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Florida Department of Health, four Florida universities and the California Environmental Protection Agency.

The DEP developed the new regulations using a newly developed process called the "Monte Carlo method." Critics contended that was an apt term for pollution regulations that gambled with the public’s health.

Once the DEP proposed the new rules, they had to be voted on by the state’s Environmental Regulation Commission. But at the time of the vote, there were two vacancies on the board, one intended for a representative of the environmental community and another for a representative of local government, because Gov. Rick Scott hadn’t appointed anyone.

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Despite vocal opposition, the ERC approved the rules 3-2. The only thing standing in the way of them going into effect was getting them approved by the EPA.

But before that could happen, the new rules drew legal opposition from Broward County, the city of Miami and the Seminole tribe. The Pulp and Paper Association filed a legal challenge as well.

Their case was scheduled for a hearing in front of an administrative law judge in April. However, with the DEP withdrawing the rules and starting over, the legal challenge is now moot.

"Since these rules were not yet submitted to the EPA, Florida’s current water standards remain in place," Engel said. She said the agency will soon unveil how it plans to proceed with drawing up new rules.

Linda Young of the Clean Water Network, one of the environmental groups that was most vocal in opposing the 2016 regulations, said she was not sure what might happen next.

"They could just adopt EPA’s recommendations using Florida’s fish-consumption numbers and be done with it," she said, but predicted that would run afoul of the polluting industries that had supported the 2016 change.

Young sees the DEP’s decision to start over as part of a pattern in its dealings with polluters.

"The strategy used by DEP and the pulp and paper industry for the last 26 years has been delay and stall," she said. "They are masters at this game and so we see it continuing."

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.