Gov. Rick Scott recently told federal officials they should leave Florida alone and let it set its own water pollution standards. Scott and other state leaders have boasted that Florida's pollution-control laws have put it ahead of other states.
But the Legislature is about to change those laws.
A bill that has passed the House calls for relaxing the standards for how much pollution goes into the state's rivers, streams, lakes and bays. The changes called for by HB 239 will be, says Audubon of Florida's Charles Lee, "devastating," particularly in the Everglades.
"This is what all the polluters are fighting for, the complete overthrow of Florida's water-quality criteria," agreed Linda Young of the Clean Water Network. Struggling to come up with a term for how odious she considers it, she labeled the bill "the mack daddy of bottom of the barrel."
To the businesses that belong to Associated Industries of Florida, however, this is a common-sense move. The current water pollution standards are overly broad, said AIF lobbyist Keyna Cole.
Changing the standards "will really help determine which bodies of water need cleanup first," she said.
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The current state standards were created in 1968. They divide the state's waterways into five categories based on their usage. Class I is for drinking water. Class II means it's clean enough to eat the oysters and other shellfish harvested there. Class III means it's clean enough for someone to swim there or to eat the fish caught there. Class IV means it's only good for irrigating crops, and Class V is primarily for industrial use.
No one is supposed to dump pollution into those waterways in quantities sufficient to change their use — in other words, you're not allowed to degrade a Class III waterway so that it becomes a Class IV or V. To avoid that, the state has been setting limits on how much pollution can be dumped into each waterway per day, something called a total maximum daily load.
In 1998, state officials drew up a list of 1,200 Florida waterways that had trouble meeting their classification because they were impaired by pollution. About 80 percent had problems with high levels of nutrients and low levels of dissolved oxygen — both manifestations of fertilizer-heavy runoff, which is the target of some controversial regulations that federal officials plan to impose in Florida.
In telling the federal government to back off of those new rules, Scott boasted in a news release that Florida continues to "lead the nation in developing innovative tools to ensure the health of our state's waterways."
However, thanks to language inserted in HB 239 by Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, Florida's 43-year-old waterway system would be tossed out. In its place would be a more elaborate one with less stringent standards. Lakes, streams and rivers would be classified according to a pair of scales, one rating the Human Use and the other rating Aquatic Life.
Most of the state's waterways would fall under the category called Human Use 3/Aquatic Life 2. The Human Use 3 category means that "recreational uses may support prolonged and direct contact with the water with minimal risk of water ingestion in quantities sufficient to pose a health hazard."
In other words, Young said, it would be all right to splash around in it as long as you don't swallow it.
Williams, an engineer who works for developers and a former board member of the South Florida Water Management District, did not return calls seeking comment. A legislative staff analysis of the bill says her proposed change in the water pollution standards would "allow appropriate expectations to be set for all water bodies."
Environmental advocates say it's really just a way to avoid cleaning up some of the state's polluted rivers, lakes and streams by downgrading the standards they're supposed to meet.
"It's going to set back water-quality standards for a decade or more," predicted Jerry Phillips of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
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The state Department of Environmental Protection helped develop these new standards in collaboration with such industries as sewer operators and pulp and paper manufacturers, but then chose not to implement them. DEP officials say they are taking no position on Williams' proposal.
What has environmental advocates particularly concerned is a sentence under the Aquatic Life 2 designation: "May have minimal changes in the biological structure as evidenced by the replacement of sensitive taxa by more tolerant taxa."
In other words, if some flora and fauna find the water becoming too toxic and move out while other species that can put up with pollution move in, that's now all right.
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To Lee, that signals a reversal of the long-standing attempt to clean up pollution in the Everglades. The River of Grass got that name because of its abundant saw grass marshes. But phosphorous pollution flowing off farms and suburban lawns has wiped out saw grass and instead stimulated the growth of cattails. The cattails are choking the life out of parts of the state's most famous swamp, blocking wading birds and altering the flow of water.
To combat and reverse the spread of cattails, the state has set a tough-to-achieve limit for the amount of phosphorus allowed to flow into the Everglades. But the state has done such a poor job of enforcing the limit that last week a federal judge ruled that the federal government should take over the cleanup.
That one line in the Aquatic Life 2 category, said Lee, is "code for 'replacement of saw grass with cattails,' " which means it's aimed at allowing more, not less, phosphorous pollution to flow into the Everglades.
The bill, with Williams' language in it, won House approval last week by a vote of 90-27. It is now headed for a vote in the Senate, but so far it has not been placed on a calendar to be considered.
Craig Pittman can be reached at email@example.com.