Amid a long-running political fight over new water pollution standards being imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Florida officials Wednesday unveiled their own new standards for limiting the most common form of pollution in the state's rivers, streams and estuaries.
The new standards for limiting nutrient pollution — the kind that often causes toxic algae blooms — have already drawn support from the Florida Pulp and Paper Association, Associated Industries of Florida and phosphate mining giant Mosaic, among other groups.
Also lined up in support: the EPA. Based on a preliminary review, the federal agency "would be able to approve the draft rule" as complying with the Clean Water Act, wrote Nancy K. Stoner of the EPA's regional office in Atlanta.
However, while state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard called the new standards "the most comprehensive nutrient pollution limitations in the nation," some environmental groups say what DEP has come up with is worse than the rule already on the books.
"The toxic slime outbreaks in Florida will continue and get worse," predicted David Guest of Earthjustice, one of the groups that previously sued the EPA for failing to protect Florida's waterways from nutrient pollution. The new state rule, he said, was "negotiated with the polluting industries, and it reflects that."
Guest contended the EPA is going along with the DEP's rule to dissipate the political heat that ensued when the federal agency agreed to impose new pollution rules on Florida. The EPA's rules have drawn opposition from Gov. Rick Scott, state business leaders and some members of Florida's congressional delegation.
"They're just lying down and letting the DEP do whatever they want to do," said Linda Young of the Clean Water Network. The problem with the new rules, she said, is that they don't apply to what comes out of the end of a drain pipe. That makes it harder to stop pollution at the source, she said.
Nutrients such as phosphorous 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 — but the state's rules for how much nitrogen and phosphorous are allowed in waterways were only vague guidelines.
The EPA told all states in 1998 to set strict limits on nutrient pollution and warned it would do it for them if no action was taken by 2004. DEP officials started working on new standards in 2001, but 2004 passed without any change.
In 2008, Earthjustice and a coalition of other environmental groups sued the EPA to force it to take action in Florida. A year later, the agency settled the suit by agreeing to impose nutrient pollution standards — and the complaints began boiling up from Florida industry leaders about costly, unnecessary federal regulations hurting the economy.
Attorney General Pam Bondi, on behalf of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Hasner, sued to block implementation of the rules, and on Wednesday she filed a motion accusing the EPA of exaggerating the threat from nutrient pollution.
EPA officials have said all along that they would drop their pollution limits if the state would come up with some new standards. In the EPA's letter Wednesday, agency officials said that if the state's Environmental Review Commission and the Legislature ratify the new state standards, and the EPA gives its formal approval of the final version, the agency would then withdraw its controversial pollution standards.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]