TALLAHASSEE — How safe is Florida's drinking water?
The agency charged with protecting it says it's very safe, especially with the approval this week of a new rule that imposes limits on 39 additional toxic substances and updates allowed limits on 43 other chemicals dumped into Florida's rivers, streams and coastal waters.
"Each and every criterion protects Floridians, according to both EPA and the World Health Organization," the Department of Environmental Protection said last week after the governor's Environmental Regulation Commission approved the new water quality rule on a narrow 3-2 vote.
But environmentalists are so convinced that Florida's water will be further harmed, they are ready to go to war.
They say the new rules allow for higher levels of carcinogens and chemicals that can disrupt natural hormones to be discharged into Florida waters. They claim that weak enforcement by the Department of Environmental Protection already fails to shield Florida's drinking water from health-harming contaminants.
"That policy now says that more Floridians are expendable to cancer and other serious health diseases in order for industries to be more profitable," said Linda Young, executive director of the Florida Clean Water Network, which tried and failed to get the commission to reject the DEP's proposed rule.
The rule updates the state's water quality standards for the first time since 1992 by allowing for 23 toxics, including 18 carcinogens, to be discharged from industrial polluters at higher levels. The chemicals are among those released by oil and gas drilling companies, dry cleaners, pulp and paper producers, electricity plants, wastewater treatment plants and agriculture.
Under the new rules, at least 10 chemicals will now be allowed to be discharged into drinking water sources in amounts that exceed current drinking water standards.
"That means, if the new criteria goes into effect, then those waters could have higher levels of those chemicals than it is legal to send to homes for drinking," Young said. "So the utilities would have to get those chemicals out before putting it in our tap water.''
The Clean Water Network and numerous other environmental groups are asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reject the rule and order the state to revise it.
Florida regulators test the water bodies once every five years. They allow industries to release toxics into rivers and aquifers daily based on permits. The industries report to the DEP on how well they meet the discharge goals, and the agency orders corrective action if it believes a company has exceeded the limits.
If the EPA approves the new rules, chemicals such as benzene, beryllium, trichloroethane, dichloroeylene and at least six other toxic substances will be allowed at levels higher than what the state considers safe for drinking water, agency records show.
If there are more toxics in Florida's drinking water sources, utility companies must clean the water before piping it into homes, said Dee Ann Miller, a DEP spokesperson.
Take benzene, for example. The chemical is used as a solvent and degreaser of metals and is often found in oil and gas drilling operations, in gasoline and has been found to get into groundwater from leaking underground petroleum tanks.
The federal government uses two rules to regulate benzene and dozens of other hazardous chemicals in water. One is the Safe Drinking Water Act and the other is the Clean Water Act. EPA's recommended standard for benzene in tap water is 0, but the maximum level it will allow is 0.005 micrograms per liter.
Florida has set its benzene standard for drinking water higher than zero but lower than the maximum allowed by EPA. The DEP has set the safe standard at 0.001 parts per million, or 0.001 micrograms per liter.
That means that water coming out of your tap must have no more than 0.001 micrograms of benzene per liter "to reduce the risk of cancer or other adverse health effects," according to the DEP.
Under federal Clean Water Act standards, benzene and other chemicals are allowed at higher levels — ranging from a low of 0.58 micrograms per liter to 21 micrograms per liter, said Miller.
The current law allows for 1.18 micrograms of benzene per liter in drinking water sources. The new rules would double that level to 2 micrograms per liter, forcing water companies to clean it even more than they currently do.
Bart Bibler, a former water regulator at the DEP and former bureau chief of the water program at the Department of Health, warns that while the new regulations assume that water utilities will remove the higher levels of chemicals from Florida waters, there is nothing that protects the 4 million Floridians who rely on private water wells.
"These wells aren't tested; they're essentially unregulated," Bibler said. "Nobody is notifying them to be on alert that the chemical compounds are increasing."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.