Public health, tourism and the environment in Florida suffered a major loss this week when the federal government put the protection of state waters back into the hands of the very people who have polluted them — big business and its enablers in Tallahassee. In a letter to the state, the Environmental Protection Agency dropped its effort to adopt clean water standards for Florida following 13 years of foot-dragging by state officials. This is either Washington's way to force the state's hand or a decision by the Obama administration not to alienate Florida in the run-up to the 2012 election. Either way, it's a risky game of chicken with a governor and a state Legislature that have shown no regard for the environment and clean water.
A brief history: The federal government told the states in 1998 to limit nutrient pollution in rivers, lakes and coastal areas by 2004 or it would do the job for them. But 2004 came and went. Florida environmental groups sued in 2008 seeking to compel the EPA to intervene under the Clean Water Act. The agency settled the case in 2009 under an agreement it would draft the standards for Florida. After 11 years of stalling, new rules were on the way and expected this year. Then Monday, after howls of complaints from business groups and state lawmakers, the EPA said it would give Florida another chance. The agency did not agree to preapproving any rules or to surrendering its rulemaking authority entirely. But it agreed to give Florida the time to write new clean water standards of its own.
This concession was as close to an all-out surrender as they come, and it's a shame EPA lost its nerve in the face of a massive disinformation campaign. State leaders and business interests hijacked the debate by ponying up inflated estimates for what it would cost to clean up Florida's waters. The EPA agreed to a host of loopholes — exempting entire industrial operations from the clean water rules, creating a waiver process and dragging out enforcement. Still, the state went to court to protect the biggest polluters. For this, Florida gets rewarded with another chance?
The charitable excuse is that the EPA wanted to give Florida another opportunity to show good faith. But the state could have delivered in 2002. Or in 2004. Or in the years since. The state's intent is not to ensure that the standards are appropriate for Florida's hydrology, but to render them meaningless, to run out the clock, to save money and to create loopholes big enough for the worst polluters to carry on as usual. EPA based its rules, after all, on the state's own science. The rules were a decade in the making, put into motion by President George W. Bush and crafted in concert with two previous Republican governors. It is long beyond time for Washington to intervene.
Pollution taints 2,000 miles of the state's rivers, 380,000 acres of its lakes and 569 square miles of its coastal areas. Runoff from farms, utilities and sewer plants sparks fish kills, taints the public drinking water supply, damages waterfront property and tourist attractions and causes outbreaks of respiratory illness and other diseases. These are the real cost implications Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature need to consider — along with the cost of cleaning up even dirtier waterways. The EPA sold Floridians short by putting its faith in a governor who thinks government regulation is the problem. If Florida fails to follow through and meet its obligation to write and enforce clean water rules in the near future — and the odds are good that it will fail — the EPA should be prepared to retake control or prepare for another lawsuit.