EPA cuts deal with Florida on pollution rules, delighting business and angering environmentalists

Published March 16, 2013

If Florida legislators and regulators will take certain steps, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says it will back off imposing new water pollution regulations on the state's waterways.

State Department of Environmental Protection officials announced Friday that they have cut a deal with EPA officials to let the state take the lead in regulating nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, known together as nutrients.

"We can now move forward to implementing nutrient reduction criteria, rather than delaying environmental improvements due to endless litigation," DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard Jr. said in a news release.

Word of the EPA-DEP deal was greeted with delight by utilities, dairy farmers, pulp mills and other industries that had worked on drawing up the state's proposed standards. The head of one of the state's leading business lobbies, Tom Feeney of Associated Industries of Florida, said the credit for the EPA's agreement is due to the continued political pressure on the agency from Florida's congressional delegation.

Meanwhile environmental groups — who in January stood outside a public hearing chanting "EPA yes! DEP no!" — vowed to battle the agreement in court.

David Guest of Earthjustice compared the agreement to a deal to protect henhouses from "the Fox Consultation Council," because "the polluting industries have effective control of the state pollution prevention process in Florida."

In the past 30 years, nutrients have become the most common water pollution problem in the state. Nitrates and phosphorus from fertilizer, septic waste and other sources feed the increase in slimy algae blooms that kill fish and cause respiratory problems and rashes among swimmers. Some scientists have theorized that nutrient pollution helps to sustain long-running Red Tide blooms like the one that's killed a record number of manatees this year, but so far the evidence of that is far from conclusive.

In 2008, Earthjustice and other environmental groups sued the EPA for failing to force Florida to come up with effective rules limiting nutrient pollution. The EPA settled a year later, agreeing to draw up a host of new water pollution rules.

But business groups, agricultural leaders and politicians galore complained about what they warned would be a high cost for complying with those rules. Concerns about trying to meet the EPA standards helped persuade some local governments to back tighter rules on fertilizer use and sales.

Meanwhile, the DEP came up with its own set of pollution criteria, which drew support from the Florida Pulp and Paper Association, Associated Industries and phosphate mining giant Mosaic, among others. Some environmental groups contend that the DEP's new rules are worse than the lax regulations already on the books.

Craig Pittman can be reached at