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In environmental regulation, Florida wants to be left alone

In 1845, when Florida inaugurated its first governor, a group of citizens presented him with a proposed state flag that summed up their feeling toward the rest of the country.

It said, "LET US ALONE."

That flag only briefly fluttered over the Capitol, but its spirit prevails in Tallahassee today. You can almost hear the shouts echoing through the marble halls: "Washington, get your nose out of our business! And, Tallahassee, you get your nose out of the business of local government! And, local government, you get your nose out of business' business!"

The leave-us-alone attitude in Tallahassee comes through loud and clear when it involves environmental and growth issues. Take the problem of water pollution.

For years, nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizer and sewage have fouled many of the state's rivers, lakes, streams, springs and bays, causing algae blooms that threaten human health and harm tourism and fishing industries.

Florida's own Department of Environmental Protection spent more than a decade trying to come up with some strict anti-pollution rules to cut back those contaminants, an effort the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found wanting — but the EPA didn't want to step in and take over. Deadlines came and went and neither the DEP nor the EPA did anything to clean up Florida.

So a coalition of environmental groups sued the EPA to force it to take action. The EPA settled the suit, agreeing to impose new phosphorous and nitrogen pollution rules in Florida. A federal judge signed off on the settlement, meaning the EPA must comply with the agreement or face the consequences.

But the new EPA rules are wildly unpopular with the industries affected by them. They contend that cleaning up their pollution will be too expensive, killing any hope of reviving Florida's economy.

So state Rep. Trudi Williams, who chairs the House Select Committee on Water Policy, has filed a bill ordering the DEP to just ignore the EPA standards. HB 239 says that the DEP and any other state agency "may not implement or give any effect to the United States Environmental Protection Agency's nutrient water quality criteria rules."

The tone of the bill is clear: Washington, let us alone! Let Florida's own state officials decide whether to set those standards and clean up its lakes, springs and rivers.

But then there are the bills filed by Sen. Charlie Dean and others which target the source of some of that pollution. They tend to take a different tack.

Last year the Legislature approved a new law that said all septic tanks across Florida — some of which are more than 30 years old — should be inspected by the state Health Department every five years to make sure they're not leaking into the state's underground water supply. The law's sponsor, former Sen. Lee Constantine, pitched it as a way to deal with the coming EPA regulations, which drew support from the powerful home builders group.

Septic tank owners objected strenuously. The cost of the inspections — $100 to $150 every five years — seemed to them exorbitant, compared to spending nothing (although it was far less than what people on sewer service pay).

And what if the inspections found the tank to be leaking and thus in need of a replacement costing around $5,000? The state was supposed to set up a grant program to help septic tank owners pay for repairs, but that didn't stop the complaints that stopping pollution costs too much.

Dean's bill (SB 130) would repeal the statewide inspection requirement. However, Dean said, he wouldn't mind allowing local governments to create their own septic tank inspection rules.

There was that message again, slightly altered: Tallahassee, let us alone! Let the local governments decide if fecal material in their drinking water is a problem!

Yet the opposite argument has now popped up in regard to another source of water pollution. Pinellas County and several other local governments have passed strict rules on the sale and use of fertilizer, in hopes of tamping down nitrogen pollution in Tampa Bay and other waterways. The Pinellas rule is particularly strict, banning the summertime sale of fertilizer, since that's the rainy season.

But the fertilizer industry has cried foul. This patchwork of local regulations is too confusing for anyone to keep track of, the industry says.

Thus, bills filed by Sen. Greg Evers, R-Crestview, (SB 606) and Rep. Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, (HB 457) would void all the local fertilizer ordinances in favor of a state-drafted rule that's not as tough — it contains no summertime ban on sales, for one thing.

The locals would lose all authority over the fertilizer that's washing into their waterways, under these bills, and the regulation of fertilizer sales wouldn't even be left to the DEP. Instead, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services should be the only one to regulate "the composition, formulation, packaging, use, application and distribution of fertilizer, etc.," the bills say.

So maybe in this case Tallahassee knows best. The fertilizer industry thinks so.

Yet that's the opposite of the message from Gov. Rick Scott in regard to growth management. Scott wants to gut the Department of Community Affairs, the state agency that is supposed to ensure that local and regional growth plans mesh properly.

"It's really impacted people that want to build things," Scott explained a month before the election. "Their attitude is, 'How can somebody in Tallahassee tell my local community what we want, and DCA sits there and tells us we can't do it?' "

Scott, whose budget calls for eliminating all but 40 of the department's 358 positions, visited the DCA personally to talk to the workers there. He told them all they were doing a great job, but they're scaring off new businesses by taking too long to say yes to development that doesn't fit with state-approved growth plans. Let the locals take charge! Tallahassee, leave them alone!

The bottom line, Scott has said, is to "make this the most business-friendly state in the nation, and get rid of the job-killing regulation."

In environmental regulation, Florida wants to be left alone 03/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 4, 2011 7:16pm]
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