TALLAHASSEE — In a move cheered by environmental groups, the federal government Friday proposed stringent limits on "nutrient" pollution allowed to foul Florida's waterways.
The ruling — which will cost industries and governments more than a billion dollars to comply — marks the first time the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has intervened to set a state's water quality standards.
"I'm thrilled," said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network, an advocacy group. "It is something that will ultimately start restoring Florida's waters."
The agency issued the proposed regulations after reaching a settlement in August with five environmental groups that sued the federal government in 2008 for not enforcing the Clean Water Act in Florida.
The caps on phosphorus and nitrogen levels in Florida's lakes, rivers, streams, springs and canals would replace the state's vague "narrative" approach to monitoring the effects of waste and fertilizer runoff, which the EPA deemed insufficient. The proposed rule includes provisions giving the EPA oversight authority to enforce the standards.
In Florida, 16 percent of rivers, 36 percent of lakes and 25 percent of estuaries are considered impaired, a 2008 report concluded. Nutrient pollution is the most prevalent water pollution problem in the state, contributing to algae blooms that kill fish and cause respiratory problems and infections among boaters and beachgoers. It also causes economic damage to property values, tourism and commercial fishing.
"New water quality standards … will help protect and restore inland waters that are a critical part of Florida's history, culture and economic prosperity," said Peter S. Silva, assistant administrator in the EPA's Office of Water, in a statement.
More than 10 years ago, the EPA told states to set limits on nutrient pollution.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection spent eight years collecting data and planned to present a draft proposal to a group of scientists and industry representatives last August. But the department abandoned the effort when the federal government interceded.
The EPA proposed standards are based on geography and the type of water body using the state's data and its own methodology, which was reviewed by an independent authority, said the 197-page report.
The agency's numbers don't deviate too greatly from what state regulators intended, though the federal standards are tougher when it comes to pollution in rivers and streams.
Take, for example, the Suwannee River basin: the state wanted to allow 1.730 parts per million of total nitrogen but the EPA set the number lower at 1.479 parts per million.
The EPA also went further than state regulators by proposing water quality standards for South Florida canals and creating more rigid standards on upstream nutrient levels to protect downstream lakes and estuaries.
In other areas, the rules would give Florida flexibility by establishing a procedure for gradual compliance and allowing the state to set limits in certain areas.
Federal analysts estimated it would cost polluters $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion to comply — but emphasized the state's draft proposal would have cost nearly the same. The cost estimates don't include the price for upgrading municipal stormwater systems.
A spokesman for Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said the department was still reviewing the report late Friday and didn't have a response.
But a coalition of agriculture and industry groups, which formed two months ago to oppose the EPA rules, responded quickly by calling the proposed limits a "water tax."
"This terrible regulation is not needed because Florida nutrient standards are perfectly adequate," said Jim Alves, a lobbyist who represents power companies and wastewater utilities. "The science isn't there to do this regulation."
Barney Bishop, the president of Associated Industries of Florida, said the cost — which his group estimates at more than $50 billion — would hurt business recruitment and job creation.
"It's onerous, stupid, ridiculous and idiotic," he said.
Ever since the lawsuit settlement, political officials and special interests have waded into the debate. Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum and Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson previously voiced strong objections and suggested the state might sue the EPA.
The issue is expected to generate intense political debate ahead of three public hearings throughout the state in February. A final rule takes effect in October.