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EPA unveils new pollution standards for Florida waters, then delays them

For months, everyone from Florida's new Republican governor to its Democratic senator to its farmers, sewer plant operators and utilities has been trying to get the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to back off new water pollution standards for Florida.

Cleaning up the waterways, they warned, would ruin the state's already shaky economy.

On Monday, EPA officials announced they were ready to unveil the new pollution limits for Florida's rivers, lakes and springs — but with a catch.

The federal agency will not implement the 168 pages of new standards, which could cost residents an extra 11 to 20 cents a day per household, for another 15 months.

The delay is necessary to counteract all the "exaggerated, doomsday claims" that opponents have been spreading, explained the EPA's Atlanta regional administrator, Gwen Keyes Fleming.

For instance, a lot of the opposition to the new standards has come from agricultural concerns. However, Fleming pointed out, the standards apply only to industries that pipe their pollution into a waterway. Farmers do not do that, and therefore they won't be affected, she said.

Gov.-elect Rick Scott, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and a variety of politicians and business groups from across the state had urged the EPA to back off the new rules based on what some believed the cost to be to implement them.

EPA officials estimate the cost of complying with the new rules will be $130 million to $200 million — not $21 billion, as opponents had claimed. That works out to about $40 to $71 per household per year, Fleming said.

Fleming pointed out that doing nothing about pollution costs Florida's economy.

"In 2008, toxic blue-green algae blooms north of the Franklin Lock on the Caloosahatchee River forced the Olga Water treatment plant serving 30,000 people to temporarily shut down," she said.

Nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen flow into waterways from fertilized lawns, golf courses, leaking septic tanks and malfunctioning sewer plants. In the past 30 years, nutrient pollution has become the most common water pollution problem in Florida, feeding the increase in algae blooms that kill fish and cause respiratory problems and rashes among swimmers and beachgoers.

In 1998, the EPA ordered states to set numeric limits on nutrient pollution, and warned that if they did nothing by 2004 the federal government would step in. But that deadline passed with the EPA taking no action.

Florida has vaguely worded limits on nutrients that have failed to prevent some waterways, such as the St. Johns River, from being heavily polluted.

"We've had toxic algae blooms, massive fish kills and mystery foam," said Neil Armingeon of the St. Johns Riverkeeper, who pointed out that those events hurt fishing guides, bait houses and waterfront hotels. "The cost when the river is sick like this is profound and significant."

About 1,918 miles of Florida's rivers and streams, 378,435 acres of its lakes, and 569 square miles of its estuaries now are considered impaired by nutrient pollution.

Environmental groups sued the EPA in 2009 to push the agency to take action on Florida's nutrient pollution problems, and the EPA agreed in a settlement to impose the new standards.

Environmental activists who had been involved in the suit expressed disappointment at the EPA's decision to delay the start of the new rules, but said they understood the need.

"It's certainly slower than we'd like it to be," said Cris Costello of the Sierra Club. "But we knew it would take months or even years to enforce this new rule. We wanted these rules in 1998. Fifteen more months, it's not forever."

Barney Bishop, executive director of the business group Associated Industries, which has strongly opposed the new standards, hailed the delay as a victory for Florida. But he blasted what he called "radical left-wingers" trying to impose new regulations on a state that's struggling economically. He said he still doesn't believe the EPA's cost figures.

"The bigger question is how clean does our water have to be," Bishop asked. "We're not going to ever get rid of algae blooms."

Florida's newly elected governor said he was "pleased the EPA decided not to mandate new water quality restrictions on the state before we could fully assess the economic impact."

Incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon said he hopes Scott's administration, as well as the Legislature, will aggressively fight the new rules.

The EPA's standards vary according to regions and types of water body. The agency is establishing five regions within Florida with different nitrogen and phosphorus criteria for streams in each region. In the Tampa Bay area, nitrogen would be limited to 1.65 milligrams per liter of water, and phosphorus to 0.49 milligrams per liter.

The EPA is classifying Florida's lakes into three groups — colored, clear and alkaline, and clear and acidic — and then setting criteria for each one. And the state's springs get their own separate standard of 0.35 milligrams per liter.

Another new rule aimed at cleaning up estuaries and saltwater bodies is scheduled to be unveiled in August 2012.

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

EPA unveils new pollution standards for Florida waters, then delays them 11/15/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 16, 2010 7:23am]
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