A federal judge was right to step in last week and clear the way for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish limits on pollution in Florida's lakes, rivers and bays. The state has sat on its hands for 11 years while runoff from farms, sewer plants, golf courses and homes has put the environment, public health and the tourist economy at risk. State officials should be embarrassed for sticking by such major polluters as paper, pulp and phosphate manufacturers and for tarring the cleanup as a back-door tax. The deal should help reverse the deterioration of Florida waters and prod the state and private industry to adopt sustainable business practices.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle said he would approve an agreement environmental groups reached with the EPA to limit the amount of nutrient pollution in Florida's waterways. These groups sued the EPA last year in an effort to compel the federal government to intervene in Florida under the Clean Water Act. The EPA told the states in 1998 to limit nutrient pollution in surface waters, and warned it would do it for them if no action was taken by 2004. But the state left its rules vague. With the judge's ruling, the EPA can impose specific limits for such nutrients as phosphorous and nitrogen. The goal is to reduce the levels of sewage, fertilizer and manure in the waters. The pollution triggers toxic algae, kills fish and causes infections and respiratory problems for swimmers, boaters and beachgoers.
Predictably, the polluters and the state bureaucracy that enables them oppose the EPA's involvement, saying it will lead to arbitrary pollution limits and require a back-door "federal water tax" to clean up what's now flowing into public waterways. Both arguments are ridiculous. The pollution limits are arbitrary now; if anything, quantifying the pollution caps into actual levels for specific waterways will give industrial polluters more clarity. And industries have no way of knowing what costs consumers might face until the EPA establishes the pollution limits. That process will continue through October. The opponents, including two former state environmental secretaries, are seeking a reprieve from Congress. That shouldn't happen.
Public waterways should not be dumping grounds for industrial waste. Clean water has a cost — but so do polluted springs, closed beaches, toxic rivers and tainted drinking water supplies. An analysis of state waterways last year found poor water quality in 28 percent of river miles, 25 percent of the lake acreage and 59 percent of the square miles of estuaries. The state Department of Environmental Protection also reported that after trending downward for 20 years, levels of phosphorous pollution began rising again in 2000, likely due to new development.
The EPA would set pollution limits for freshwater next year and for saltwater bodies in 2011. They cannot come too soon. The state's waterways are vital to its people, its fishing and tourist industries and its ability to grow. Florida's 12,000 square miles of surface water rank it third in the nation in total water area. The nutrient limits should help reduce pollution in the short term and force regulators and manufacturers to rethink how Florida farms, builds and disposes of its sewage and industrial waste.