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A Times Editorial

Cleaning up fouled Florida waters can't wait

The clean water standards the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed for Florida are good for public health and the state's economy. For too long, polluters and their enablers in state and local government have allowed industrial waste, sewage and runoff from lawns, farms and golf courses to foul the state's lakes, rivers and drinking water. It is long past time to provide better protection to a precious resource critical to Florida's future, and the EPA will need to back up the rules with solid enforcement.

The standards would end 13 years of foot-dragging by the state and EPA over establishing strict limits for phosphorus and nitrogen pollution in Florida's surface waters. The state uses a vague "narrative" standard that allows nutrient pollution to be interpreted on a case-by-case basis. Environmental groups sued EPA in 2008 to compel the federal government to write specific limits for Florida under the Clean Water Act. The case was settled in August, and the EPA proposed rules are set to go into effect in October.

Business groups, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, are predictably attacking the standards as too expensive to meet. But business and agricultural interests fought the standards even before they were proposed, calling them a "back-door" federal tax on water. The real back-door water tax is what Floridians pay for now in the costs associated with polluted water and fish-killing algae blooms — the medical costs of infections and respiratory illness, the loss in tourism and fishing income, the expense of beach closings and environmental cleanup and the depressed taxable value of waterfront property.

The EPA's proposal is hardly half-baked. It worked in cooperation with Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, and indeed, used the state's own data in proposing the new pollution limits. Cleaning up old sewage systems and changing wasteful farming and fertilizing practices will not come free. But Florida's waterways can no longer serve as inexpensive dumping grounds. The DEP acknowledged in 2008 that 1,000 miles of rivers, 350,000 acres of lakes and 900 square miles of estuaries in Florida were tainted by nutrient pollution. The state's refusal to fix the problem the past 13 years is not an argument for more stalling.

How to chime in

A 60-day comment period on the proposed standards is under way, and public hearings will be held next week in Tallahassee, Orlando and West Palm Beach. Go to www.epa.gov/waterscience/standards/rules/florida.

Cleaning up fouled Florida waters can't wait 02/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, February 11, 2010 7:32pm]

    

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