Friday, December 15, 2017
Opinion

Column: New rules put more toxins in our water

How well does the state maintain its waters? We're aware of too much pollution, not enough oversight, lots of finger-pointing and too few hands that are willing to do the heavy lifting, politically speaking. But we don't often consider the potentially lethal consequences of politically expedient decisions.

Now, Gov. Rick Scott's Department of Environmental Protection is proposing more pollution-friendly changes to our water quality standards. These would adversely affect drinking water sources, the fish that we consume and the lakes and rivers in which we swim.

As a former member of Florida's environmental rulemaking body, the Environmental Regulation Commission, I know the existing standards were not arrived at easily or casually. They were debated for many months, with all affected parties invited to contribute their ideas and concerns — and believe me, they did contribute. The new changes would be significant because many are less stringent than the bare minimum recommended by EPA.

The proposal to weaken the rule that governs against human health-based toxins would not adequately protect Floridians' health. Most at risk would be children, pregnant women and those who enjoy eating a significant amount of local fish and seafood.

Every three years, the state must review the quality of all Florida waters. (This is a requirement of the federal Clean Water Act.) It is alarming that these proposed changes ignore such toxins as dioxin, arsenic and mercury, and they are contradictory to boot. After all, Florida has been concerned about the amount of mercury in our fish for some time.

Carcinogenic toxins — an allowable, safe level in water for drinking, shellfishing, fishing and swimming — would mostly increase. Florida's existing formula for toxic criteria, also followed by most states, is based on the same one used by the EPA, which uses a national average for fish consumption.

Naturally, Floridians eat far more fish than the national average, studies find. Even with that knowledge, the state has the audacity to propose changes that would weaken current protection of our water from toxic chemicals, including: benzene, chlordane, PCBs, chloroform, carbon-tetrachloride, bromoform, tetrachloroethene, chlordane and dieldrin.

Many other toxics would be regulated in Florida for the first time but at levels that are significantly less stringent than recommended by the federal EPA. Those are scary chemicals. Why would citizens — and I am concerned not only about my health but also the health of family and friends — tolerate the state's audacity to even propose such changes?

In the same sweeping revisions, Florida proposes to shift the number of water samples taken to detect pollutants. Annual averaging samples would be used for many of these toxins — making it easier to mask problems. I'm suspicious, aren't you? Does the state intend to make it easier to mask problems?

Then consider tourism, a core strength of Florida's economy. The state and businesses (think of beachside resorts, hotels, car rental companies — the list is endless) spend big bucks to lure vacationers here. These visitors would be exposed, too, but we'd never know the effects of such exposure. Should we tell them in our ads that Florida waters and fish may be hazardous to their health?

More cancer-causing chemicals in our waters will not build a stronger economy. It will not improve our tarnished image. It will not provide a safe and healthy environment for our children. Allowing more carcinogens to be dumped in our rivers and bays essentially amounts to an involuntary cancer lottery for anyone who eats local fish and seafood and for all of our wildlife.

I share the state's goal of maintaining a business-friendly environment. But shouldn't a business-friendly environment square with public health and healthy wildlife, rivers and estuaries? A recent University of Florida survey revealed that 93 percent of respondents rated clean drinking water as their top concern.

I share that concern. In fact, I am alarmed. The six ERC members will vote on these changes April 23. Whey they do, they should not weaken a benchmark of water quality.

Dick Batchelor, the president of a business-development consulting firm in Orlando, is a former member of the Florida House of Representatives, and Environmental Regulation Commission chair, 1991-97. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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