Aiming a legal shot directly across the bow of Gov. Rick Scott's antiregulation agenda, a Miami federal judge on Tuesday cleared the way for the federal government to do something he contends the state has failed to do for decades: enforce water pollution standards tough enough to protect the Everglades.
In the latest in a string of blistering rulings, U.S. District Judge Alan Gold reiterated frustration at repeated delays and "disingenuous" legal maneuvers by state lawmakers and agencies he charged have weakened rules intended to reduce the flow of phosphorus into the River of Grass.
"Protection of the Everglades requires a major commitment which cannot be simply pushed aside in the face of financial hardships, political opposition, or other excuses," Gold wrote. "These obstacles will always exist, but the Everglades will not — especially if the protracted pace of preservation efforts continues at the current pace."
Specifically, Gold's order would strip authority from the state to issue critical pollution discharge permits for the state's $1.2 billion network of nutrient-scrubbing marshes and give it to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That may sound minor but it potentially has major implication in ongoing, high-stakes legal battles between the state and the federal government over setting the bar for what level of damaging nutrients can be released, not only in the Everglades but in lakes, streams and coastal waters statewide — at least if his ruling stands up on appeal.
The Scott administration, which has defended the state's oversight of Everglades cleanup and water pollution standards, said it was already "vigorously pursuing" an appeal filed earlier with the 11th Circuit Court in Atlanta.
In an initial 2008 ruling in the case, originally filed by the Miccosukee Tribe and environmental group Friends of the Everglades, Gold ripped both state efforts and federal oversight of Glades cleanup. He has since expanded on the ruling with additional orders in 2009 and 2010 that demanded the EPA impose its own cleanup plan.
In October, the South Florida Water Management District, which oversees Glades cleanup and restoration for the state, wrote to Gold, flatly rejecting the EPA plan as unaffordable. It calls for a 42,000-acre, $1.5 billion expansion of the state's existing network of reservoirs and pollution treatment marshes, which are designed to absorb phosphorus that runs from sugar farms, cattle pastures and suburban lawns.
In his ruling Tuesday, Gold wrote he was compelled to strip the state of its permitting authority over the marshes because in the three years since his first order, state agencies had proved "unwilling or unable" to set standards that comply with the federal Clean Water Act — meaning the existing marshes weren't getting the water clean enough to protect the sensitive Everglades ecosystem.
Gold wrote that the state and district "have not been true stewards of protecting the Everglades in recent years," failing to meet even the watered-down standards. Gold also cited recent moves by Gov. Scott as evidence of the state's "resistance" to tougher nutrient standards that the EPA is moving to impose on state waters as part of a separate federal lawsuit.