TAMPA — The chanting echoed through the hotel: "EPA yes! DEP no!"
About 150 environmental activists from around the state, many wearing green T-shirts that said "Ask Me About SLIME," crowded into the hallway in front of a ballroom door to protest what they viewed as lax water pollution regulations.
They waved signs showing toxic algae blooms in Wakulla Springs and other waterways, booed any mention of Gov. Rick Scott and howled with laughter when Conservancy of Southwest Florida president Andrew McElwaine joked that rampant pollution required changing the state song to "Way Down Upon the Slimy River."
But beyond the doors of the ballroom the atmosphere was far different. That's where officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had set up a six-hour "information session" to take public comments on new pollution rules.
Inside the ballroom was no venue for chanting or booing. Instead, the EPA had set up a few tables and some computers where people could submit written comments, period. There would be no boisterous public hearing.
EPA officials said representatives from the state Department of Environmental Protection, dairy farmers and pulp mills also showed up at Thursday's informational session, but they were quieter than the protesters, one of whom blew a whistle and shouted, "This is not what democracy looks like!"
The dispute is over how to cut nutrient pollution, which in the past 30 years has become the most common water pollution problem in the state. Nitrates and phosphorous from fertilizer, septic waste and other sources feed the increase in slimy algae blooms that kill fish and cause respiratory problems and rashes among swimmers.
"I am tired of seeing green slime outbreaks on the St. Johns River every summer," said St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman, who came to the hearing from Jacksonville.
Facing a 2009 court order in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, the EPA drew up a host of new water pollution rules for Florida that were designed to cut back on nitrate pollution. But business groups, agricultural leaders and politicians galore complained about what they warned would be a high cost for complying with those rules.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Environmental Protection came up with its own set of pollution criteria, which drew support from the Florida Pulp and Paper Association, Associated Industries of Florida and phosphate mining giant Mosaic, among others.
Although DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard called the state's own criteria "the most comprehensive nutrient pollution limitations in the nation," some environmental groups contended that the DEP's rules were worse than the lax regulations already on the books.
But EPA officials are willing to accept the DEP's rules instead of imposing their own if they can work out a few details, according to Jim Giattina, director of the water protection division in the EPA's Atlanta regional office.
He pointed out that even if the EPA disregarded the state's objections and imposed its own rules, the EPA lacks the authority to enforce rules on pollution that doesn't come from a specific source. Instead, he said, the federal government would have to rely on the DEP to enforce them.
But the EPA isn't comfortable with the fact that the DEP is demanding the federal agency approve every single sentence of its rules or else none of them will take effect. And the DEP's proposed rules don't cover all the estuaries and other waterways that the EPA rules do.
Environmental activist Jennifer Hecker, co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, also contended that the EPA rules "would prevent severe water-quality degradation" while the DEP's rules do not impose any limits on pollution unless the waterway is already polluted.
Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected]