Federal judge threatens to fine agencies for pace of Everglades cleanup

WEST PALM BEACH — "Glacial slowness" in imposing water pollution cleanup standards leaves Everglades restoration "rudderless," according to a judge's blistering ruling Wednesday that faults federal and state environmental officials for delays.

U.S. District Judge Alan Gold blamed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for failing to heed his 2008 ruling that directed the agencies to enforce water cleanup standards that were supposed to begin in 2006.

Instead, federal and state officials have opted for a 10-year extension to enforce tougher standards to clean up phosphorus levels in water that flows to the Everglades.

On Wednesday, Gold ordered the EPA and DEP to "immediately carry out" his previous mandates, or face fines and sanctions for violating the federal Clean Water Act.

Gold also called out the South Florida Water Management District, which leads Everglades restoration. Gold said the district "has chosen to ignore" the court's call to enforce the water-quality standard.

"The hard reality is that ongoing destruction due to pollution within the Everglades Protection Area continues to this day at an alarming rate," Gold said in his ruling.

In addition, Gold criticized Gov. Charlie Crist's proposed $536 million Everglades restoration land deal with U.S. Sugar Corp., saying other restoration efforts "may be affected, if not indefinitely postponed" by the proposed 73,000-acre purchase.

Crist wants to buy the land to reshape restoration by using U.S. Sugar's land to build reservoirs and treatment areas to store, clean and redirect water to the Everglades.

DEP officials issued a statement Wednesday saying that they were "extremely disappointed" in the judge's ruling and that an appeal was expected. More than $1.8 billion has already been invested in water-quality improvements, according to DEP.

The entire wetlands once covered more than 6,250 square miles, but has shrunk by half, replaced with homes and farms and a 2,000-mile grid of drainage canals.

The Everglades has since lost 90 percent of its wading birds, and 68 threatened or endangered species face extreme peril.

Gold on Wednesday ordered state and federal officials to set an "enforceable" timetable to start imposing the water pollution standards. He called for a hearing in October to get an update on their progress.

"Arguing that 'something is better than nothing' ignores the undeniable scientific fact that we are falling further behind, and that time is running out," Gold said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Federal judge threatens to fine agencies for pace of Everglades cleanup 04/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 15, 2010 12:26am]

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