Florida's two U.S. senators may be in different parties, but they have found something they agree on. They both oppose strict new water pollution standards that the Environmental Protection Agency was supposed to impose on Florida starting in two weeks.
In fact, Republican Sen. George LeMieux and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson are so opposed to the pollution cleanup that on Wednesday night they tried to cut the EPA's funding for enforcing the new rules. A procedural move by another senator blocked them.
"This is a lawsuit-driven mandate without a sound scientific basis, and the result will be unnecessarily catastrophic for Florida," LeMieux said afterward. "The EPA's actions threaten Florida's economy and is unlikely to provide little, if any biological benefit compared to its estimated cost."
In the face of such opposition, EPA officials announced Wednesday that they would push back the effective date of the new pollution rules by a month, to Nov. 14.
To delay even that much, the agency had to get the agreement of the environmental groups that had sued the EPA to force a cleanup of nutrient pollution that they say should have begun a decade ago.
Nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen flow into waterways from fertilized lawns, golf courses, leaking septic tanks, cattle pastures and malfunctioning sewer plants. They feed the increase in toxic algae blooms that kill fish and cause respiratory problems and infections among swimmers, boaters and beachgoers.
Yet the state's rules for how much nitrogen and phosphorous are allowed in Florida's waterways are only vague guidelines that are easily bypassed, environmental activists contend. The EPA told all states in 1998 to set limits on nutrient pollution, and warned it would do it for them if no action was taken by 2004 — but then 2004 passed with no action.
So a coalition of groups that included the Sierra Club and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida sued the EPA, arguing it had failed to enforce the Clean Water Act. Last year the agency settled.
Under the settlement, the EPA had until Jan. 14 to propose the new pollution limit for Florida's lakes, rivers and creeks and then this month to finalize those rules. The agency then has until January 2011 to propose a limit for the state's coastal and estuarine waters, with a deadline of October 2011 to finalize those rules.
The proposed regulations drew 22,000 comments, including reactions from such industries as agriculture, pulp and paper manufacturers and sewer plant operators, all of whom contend it will cost too much to comply. The list of opponents includes such politically powerful groups as Associated Industries of Florida, as well as 21 of the state's 25 congressional representatives.
"These rules will impact a lot of Florida's businesses — not just the black hats," Nelson's press secretary, Dan McLaughlin, said. If the EPA pushes ahead anyway, he said, Nelson fears that "everybody will just end up back in court in a knife fight that'll drag on endlessly."
That's why Nelson backed LeMieux's attempt to prevent the EPA from spending any money on the rules through December, he said. But one of the environmental activists who sued the EPA saw it a different way.
"This is just another pork barrel earmark meant to bail out polluters," said Andrew McElwaine of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. "We shouldn't be weakening water standards after the BP disaster."
The legislation LeMieux and Nelson co-sponsored was an amendment to a resolution to keep the government running through December. It promised to "prohibit the use of funds to finalize, promulgate, implement, administer, or enforce any final rule or requirement based on the proposed rule entitled 'Water Quality Standards for the State of Florida's Lakes and Flowing Waters.' "
However, the amendment could be added only with unanimous consent, and Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, objected, killing the measure.
EPA officials said they will use the additional month looking through the 22,000 comments "to review and confirm that all comments have been fully considered."