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Feds consider plan to transfer Florida wetlands permitting to state

The Environmental Protection Agency will soon decide on whether the state should take over decisions on dredging and filling.
The trunk of a cypress tree hangs over the Hillsborough River as it winds through a hammock forest at Hillsborough River State Park.
The trunk of a cypress tree hangs over the Hillsborough River as it winds through a hammock forest at Hillsborough River State Park. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Oct. 21, 2020
Updated Feb. 12

To start the virtual meeting, an Environmental Protection Agency official sought to make one point clear:

“No decision on Florida’s request has been made,” said Jeaneanne Gettle, the water division director for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Southeast region.

But even as the agency deliberates on whether to give the state control over key wetlands permitting, advocates on both sides have long since made up their minds.

During a video meeting rife with hiccups while speakers struggled to unmute their microphones, industry representatives, environmentalists and residents traded old salvos. Of concern is whether the Florida Department of Environmental Protection should regulate more decisions on dredging and filling wetlands — an aspect of much development in Florida — rather than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“Water is the economic and environmental lifeblood of this state probably more so than any other state in the union,” said Preston Robertson, a leader of the Florida Wildlife Federation, opposing the move. “We need as much protection as we can.”

John Goolsby, who identified himself as an environmental consultant, argued the change is necessary to make permitting more efficient.

"Florida already protects its water and wetlands,” he said. “We do not need the additional layer of bureaucracy and permitting costs.”

Wetlands serve as a natural barrier to flooding and resource for filtering water and recharging the aquifer. More than a decade ago, an effort to bring additional permitting under the state was abandoned, but in 2018 the Florida Legislature voted to move forward with exploring the concept. The Department of Environmental Protection submitted a formal request this summer.

Related: Gov. Rick Scott's DEP wants to take over issuing federal wetland permits

Dredging and filling in wetlands is frequently part of projects in Florida, from building homes to growing crops to laying roads. The state controls some permitting, while the federal government oversees other wetlands. The process, known as 404 permitting, falls under the Clean Water Act.

The Department of Environmental Protection wrote in its request that it could assume federal duties without hiring new staff, estimating that 85 percent of the work will overlap with existing tasks.

“Florida has more resources and expertise that is accessible to citizens and applicants,” an agency spokeswoman, Alexandra Kuchta, wrote in a statement Wednesday. She said federal staffing shortages and delays have slowed projects in Florida, including restoration efforts, and the state would have to be at least as strict as the Army Corps. “This would provide greater certainty to the regulated community, conserve resources of both applicant and regulator and would afford the state greater control over its natural resources while complying with federal law."

Related: Florida moving ahead to take over federal wetlands permitting

Tania Galloni, managing attorney for Earthjustice in Florida, said in an interview that if permitting is “all in DEP’s hands, (she) would anticipate a lot of green lights." There remains too much uncertainty over exactly what wetlands the state would add to its workload, she said.

Permit applicants have ridiculed the system as cumbersome, adding time and costs to projects. Some environmentalists say the federal government provides a check, while the state agency moves too quickly under deadlines and can be swayed more easily by local political influence.

A couple of dozen people signed up to speak ahead of the meeting Wednesday. The hearing was scheduled for three hours, but too few speakers logged in to completely fill the time.

The Environmental Protection Agency said it will accept public comment on the request through Nov. 2. It expects to decide by mid-December. The agency scheduled another virtual meeting for Oct. 27, from 5 to 8 p.m.

Two states, Michigan and New Jersey, have taken over permitting from the federal government. In a phone interview Wednesday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler said he has heard the process for applying was too difficult. He said agency officials worked with Florida to help the state apply, but he could not “prejudge how it’s going to end up.”

“When you’re regulating water, it’s so much more effective at the state level where the people who live here are making the decisions,” Wheeler said.

Representatives from the Fertilizer Institute, an industry group involving phosphate miners; the Florida Chamber of Commerce; the Florida Electric Power Coordinating Group; and the Association of Florida Community Developers all spoke in support Wednesday.

Critics have questioned why Florida wants to take on more work when, under former Gov. Rick Scott, environmental departments saw sharp staff and funding cuts, and while the coronavirus pandemic poses a new budgetary challenge.

A handful of residents argued that Floridians should not speed up development.

“When is enough enough?” asked Marilyn Vazquez-Almedo. “I guess when we have nothing left to build on and have created a concrete jungle.”

To offer comment or learn more about the plan, search for the proposal’s docket on regulations.gov under EPA-HQ-OW-2018-0640.

Correction:  An estimate from the U.S. Geological Survey shows Florida has a little more than one-tenth of America’s wetlands, not including Alaska or Hawaii. An earlier version of this story gave a disputed figure.