Rick Scott, Pam Bondi and the rest of Florida's newly elected Republican leadership teamed up the other day for a shameful cause — dirtier streams, lakes and drinking water. The pair joined a host of incoming Republican officeholders to blast the new clean water rules announced this month by the Environmental Protection Agency. These leaders need to get their facts — and their priorities — straight. Polluted water endangers public health, threatens the golden geese of property values and tourism and destroys the very environment that attracts residents here. The state should welcome the new standards and work with polluters to clean up the public's waterways.
The new rules are hardly an example of an activist federal government overstepping its authority. The EPA told the states in 1998 to limit nutrient pollution in surface waters by 2004 or it would do the job for them. But 2004 came and went. Finally, in 2008, environmental groups sued the EPA, calling on the agency to intervene in Florida under the Clean Water Act. Last year, the agency settled the case under the stipulation that it adopt specific pollution standards for Florida waterways. The EPA unveiled those standards — for lakes, river and springs — this month. A separate proposal for coastal waters is due by November 2011.
Florida's political and business leaders decried the move as an unprecedented reach and a costly mandate that could stall Florida's recovery — totally ignoring that the EPA and state had dragged their feet for more than a decade while waterways deteriorated further. Industry groups said the measure could cost agriculture, municipal and industrial wastewater plants and pulp and paper manufacturers $12 billion a year. Barney Bishop, who heads Associated Industries, the powerful business lobby, blamed "radical left-wingers" for imposing regulations that the state might not even need.
Radical left-wingers? These rules were put into motion under the administration of President George W. Bush, after the EPA had worked for a decade with two Republican governors of Florida to write tighter pollution standards. And the standards are not near as draconian or as costly as industrial polluters have claimed. The EPA estimates the rules would affect only a fraction of farmers, plant operators and other polluters. Fewer than half of the wastewater plants and only about one-tenth of farming operations would fall under the plan, according to the EPA. The agency estimates the cleanup would cost between $135 million and $206 million annually. And that's before polluters could take advantage of a variance process that could take entire operations or watersheds off the hook from making any changes at all.
Business groups have done a good job camouflaging the issue as a jobs bill and confusing the point: The public's waterways should no longer be a cheap dumping ground for fertilizer, chemicals, livestock manure, stormwater runoff and septic tanks. Nutrient pollution causes harmful algae blooms, which can kill fish, cause infections, rashes and respiratory problems among swimmers and beachgoers and cause huge financial losses in tourism and property values. The state acknowledged in 2008 that nutrient pollution tainted 1,000 miles of rivers, 350,000 acres of lakes and 900 square miles of estuaries in Florida.
The EPA's standards build on what is a Florida solution to a Florida problem. Federal officials have shown good faith by continuing to meet with state regulators and affected industries to ensure that the clean-water standards are reasonable and specific to the local hydrologic conditions. The EPA also stayed the rules for an additional 15 months to give the industry time to prepare. This was after the agency postponed the rules initially at the request of Florida's two U.S. senators, Republican George LeMieux and Democrat Bill Nelson. Florida's political and business leaders need to heed their own call for science, not politics, to drive this process. This is the water that Floridians drink.