WEST PALM BEACH — The Environmental Protection Agency has turned a "blind eye" to Florida's Everglades cleanup, while the state is violating its commitment to restore the vast ecosystem, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
In a stinging ruling from Miami, U.S. District Judge Alan Gold ordered the agency to review water pollution standards and timelines set by Florida.
Gold repeatedly accused the EPA of acting "arbitrarily and capriciously" in its failure to adhere to the mandates of the Clean Water Act.
The Miccosukee Indians, who live in the Everglades, and Friends of the Everglades sued the EPA in 2004. They claimed the agency violated the Clean Water Act by allowing Florida to change its water pollution requirements for the Everglades and delay its pollution compliance deadlines.
The case centered on a 2003 amendment to the state's 1994 Everglades Forever Act.
Florida was supposed to meet lower phosphorous levels in the Everglades by 2002. The 1994 act pushed that deadline to 2006.
The amendment changed the timeline again, setting a date of 2016 at the earliest.
The wetlands once covered more than 6,250 square miles, but have shrunk by half, replaced with homes, farms and a 2,000-mile grid of drainage canals. The Everglades has lost 90 percent of its wading birds, and 68 threatened or endangered species face extreme peril.
The state has spent about $2-billion on restoration, but lawsuits, missteps and a lack of federal funds have bogged down substantial progress for decades.
In his ruling, Gold said the EPA failed to abide by federal law when it did nothing to stop Florida from amending its statute that put off its timeline for cleaning up the Everglades.
"I have both the authority and duty to assure that any future Florida regulations affecting water quality standards are based on statutory authority which has been reviewed comprehensively by the agency entrusted by Congress to enforce" the Clean Water Act, he wrote.
"This is a very big step in stopping the evasion of the state from doing its duty for the Everglades," said Miccosukee attorney Dexter Lehtinen.
Lehtinen said the message is clear: "You can't keep changing the rules in the middle of the game just to look good."
The not-for-profit Everglades Foundation also lauded the ruling.
Florida's Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA said they were still reviewing the ruling.