CLEARWATER — Last January, the Pinellas County Commission banned residents from using certain fertilizers in the summer, warning that tougher federal water pollution limits were coming and the county needed to protect its waterways.
A year later, the County Commission unanimously decided to sue the federal government to soften those limits. The regulation could cost the county millions of dollars, they said Tuesday, and is based on bad assumptions.
"The levels being proposed are cost-prohibitive for all governments. Recession or no, they're outrageous," said commission chairwoman Susan Latvala, who spearheaded the fertilizer ban.
Taking effect in 2012, the new regulations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will force Florida cities and counties to do a better job of keeping contamination out of rivers, streams, lakes and drainage ditches that feed water supplies.
The EPA estimates that cleanup will cost $130 million to $200 million statewide. Critics put the price tag in the billions, prompting requests from state politicians and business leaders asking the EPA to back off.
Pinellas doesn't have a specific estimate of its costs, watershed management director Kelli Levy said.
In Pinellas, 75 percent of the waterways already are considered impaired. County officials say they're willing to accept tougher limits, but they need to be cost-effective.
"A 'one size fits all' approach is never going to work," Levy said.
Florida sued to stop the limits in December. The Florida League of Cities asked a federal court Monday to do the same, joined by an association of utilities. Pinellas will file its own lawsuit soon, County Attorney Jim Bennett said.
In a statement Tuesday, the EPA expressed "disappointment" that the lawsuits happened before the groups allowed built-in flexibility in the rules to play out. The EPA expressed confidence the regulations will withstand court challenge.
"These water quality standards are based on the law and strong science," the agency said, adding they are "necessary to protect Florida's waters and the health of Florida residents."
Pinellas environmental officials said the EPA regulations don't take into account how much phosphorous naturally occurs in Pinellas soil, for example.
The EPA statement didn't address Pinellas specifically.
But nutrients have become the state's most common source of pollution in the past three decades, blamed for algae blooms and fish kills. The agency already delayed enforcing the limits for 15 months to give governments more time to respond.
Phosphorous also is part of the county's summertime ban, though it focused more on nitrogen in fertilizers, Levy said.
Pinellas officials said fighting the pollution limits and imposing the ban on fertilizer are distinct issues, though they involve the same problem, nutrient pollution.
The county blames runoff from fertilizer for part of the pollution of its waters, and tens of millions in bills to restore places like Lake Seminole and Lake Tarpon.
"Pinellas County has a very long history of progressive environmental management. That has not changed," Bennett said.
The commission spent hours into the night discussing the ban last year. Without debate, the County Commission needed fewer than 40 seconds to vote to sue Tuesday.
"I find it sad that we have to spend what few resources we have at the county level fighting ourselves," said Cathy Harrelson, a Sierra Club leader in St. Petersburg, She compared it to disagreeing "how much the fire is burning down the building."
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.