Florida continues to jeopardize its environment, tourism and public health by fighting the federal government over new clean water rules. Fortunately, state lawmakers did not pass legislation that would have barred the state from enforcing the rules, which are designed to curb pollution in lakes, rivers and estuaries. But that is small consolation; the state's Republican leaders are continuing a lawsuit challenging the Environmental Protection Agency's authority and the scientific basis for moving ahead. Only a strong mandate by the EPA will protect the state's resources.
Florida has dawdled long enough in addressing pollution that has tainted about 2,000 miles of the state's rivers and streams, 380,000 acres of its lakes and 569 square miles of its coastal areas. It is politically convenient for Florida Republicans to blame Democrats in Washington for the standoff, when the state spent years fiddling with new requirements. The reality is the federal government also dragged its feet as runoff from farms, utilities and sewer plants damaged the state's water bodies, endangering tourism, the environment, public health and property values.
If anything, the EPA should have acted long ago. The agency told the states in 1998 to limit nutrient pollution in surface waters by 2004 or it would do the job. But 2004 came and went. Environmental groups sued in 2008, calling on the EPA to enforce the antipollution standards under the Clean Water Act. The agency settled the case in 2009 under the stipulation that it would draft the new rules for Florida. The standards were 10 years in the making, put in motion under then-President George W. Bush and crafted in concert with two Republican governors of Florida. The state is hardly being blindsided by a big-footed federal bureaucracy waging a liberal agenda.
That hasn't stopped leading Republicans, the big business lobby and large-scale polluters from spreading disinformation. Opponents maintain the new standards will cost the state (and ultimately consumers) billions of dollars. But that figure is based on the fiction that Florida will need to use expensive processes such as reverse-osmosis to meet the new standards — even though the EPA has made clear time and again that reverse-osmosis is off the table. EPA estimates the rules will affect only a fraction of farms and industrial operations. And the agency has postponed enforcement of the rules until 2012 at the earliest to work with the state and polluters on loopholes that could water down the standards even further.
State officials have contrived a controversy to run out the clock. Much of the data the EPA has used comes from the state's own environmental agency. It is time the federal government moved ahead. Allowing more sewage, fertilizer and other pollution into the state's waterways only harms public health and the economy and makes the cleanup more expensive. Somebody has to protect Floridians from the indifference to the environment and clean water in Tallahassee.