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State must set limits on pollution

A judge orders Florida to begin adhering to the Clean Water Act, passed 27 years ago.

It was 1972, and Americans were sick of pollution. They were sick of watching their bays, rivers and lakes slide from clear to brownish green. They were tired of "No fishing"' and "No swimming" signs.

Answering the outcry, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. Now, 27 years later, a federal judge in Tallahassee says Florida hasn't enforced the act properly. He laid down the law this week: Florida must immediately begin setting new pollution limits for 700 waterways and start enforcing them.

"It's a great day, and it's a long time coming," said Ansley Sansom, a lawyer who sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on behalf of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the Florida Wildlife Federation, Save Our Creeks and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.

But the Florida Department of Environmental Protection intends to go to court next week to ask the judge to give the state more time, DEP secretary David Struhs said Friday. Deadlines for some waterways _ including Lake Okeechobee _ come in just four months.

"'We will not be able to meet some of the deadlines set down in that judgment," Struhs said.

Environmentalists say the state already has had 27 years to get the job done.

Many states, including Florida, never did the basic science: figuring out how polluted each waterway had become, and setting limits on how much more gunk it could absorb and still be clean enough for fishing and swimming.

Why has it taken the state so long to comply with the Clean Water Act? Environmentalists say it is because powerful industries have put pressure on state and federal agencies to back off. DEP officials say the job is simply huge and complex.

State scientists have, indeed, been working on the problem for some time. The state Legislature passed the Watershed Restoration Act this year, which spells out how the DEP will collect data and set limits.

Florida has to set new "pollution loading capacity" standards for all 700 waterways, which could mean tougher limits for everything from housing developments to paper mills and electric plants.

If Florida doesn't get it done, the EPA will step in and finish the job.

U.S. District Judge William Stafford's order says the state has 12 years to set limits for the 700 waterways, and each waterway has a different due date. The state has to set new limits for parts of Tampa Bay and the Hillsborough, Manatee and Alafia rivers by 2003. The deadline for parts of Crystal River is 2006 and parts of the Withlacoochee is 2005.

The issue may seem technical, but it cuts to the heart of the controversy that surrounds Florida's explosive growth.

"It's a huge political fight already," said Linda Young, of the Clean Water Network.

If a lake is polluted with, for example, too much phosphorous and nitrogen, then what is to blame? Suburban lawns? Farm fields? Septic tanks? An industrial plant? And which is the biggest culprit?

State scientists will have to comb Florida, basin by basin, testing the waters, finding pollution and following the threads back to likely sources. Some pollution can be fixed by more strict permits. But some pollution _ such as the stormwater that runs off lawns and parking lots _ doesn't tie back to a specific permit holder. That means it's hard to control.

Industrial polluters are worried that their permits will be cut because of pollution coming from somewhere else, like a city drainage ditch across the bay.

"For 20 years the laws have required this, but, as a country, we have not delivered on it," said DEP Secretary Struhs. "This is the first serious attempt to recognize that you can't just keep issuing permits."

Struhs said he welcomes the opportunity to collect the scientific information and get a better picture of what is ailing Florida's waters.

"Florida has done more to get the ball rolling on this in the last four or five months than has been done in the past 20 years," Struhs said. But, he added, expecting the state to come up with new limits and conduct public hearings on Lake Okeechobee in just four months is unrealistic.

All over Florida, the limits will be hotly challenged by everybody from the local chamber of commerce to the Sierra Club.

"This will have a serious impact on permitting," said Young, of the Clean Water Network. "This is really the heart and soul of the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act says: "Make all of our waters fishable and swimmable.' If they are not meeting those uses because the water-quality standards are being violated, then figure out where those violations are and fix them."

Environmental groups began suing all over the nation to enforce the Clean Water Act several years ago. Federal courts have issued similar rulings in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, said Sansom, the attorney for Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.