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  1. Opinion

Dockery: Clean water is not complicated

We all want clean water. It's vital to our survival.

Clean water is necessary to ensure public health. Water leaving our lakes, running through our rivers and entering our bays and estuaries needs to be clean to support our seafood harvesters, sport fishermen, tourism industry, economy and quality of life.

Clean water is good; dirty, polluted or contaminated water is bad. Pretty simple, huh?

So last week a little-known panel, the Environmental Regulation Commission, took up a controversial rule developed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection allowing more cancer-causing chemicals to be discharged into our surface waters up to certain levels. Despite public outcry, the rule passed on a 3-2 vote.

Floridians were already upset about the blue-green algae taking over the Treasure Coast. People were getting sick with rashes and respiratory problems, fish were dying, manatees were gasping for air, beaches were closed, fishing charters were canceled and tourism suffered.

Unrelated to the ERC's action, the toxic algae bloom illustrates what happens when those responsible for our water quality fail to keep it clean or to clean it up once it becomes degraded.

While some elected officials are working with state and federal agencies to address the nutrient-laden water, many just pay lip service to appease their constituents, hoping their fury will blow over when the bloom does.

They fail to acknowledge that many of their actions have led to the costly problem in the first place. Protecting our natural resources is both prudent and possible. It is less expensive to keep our water, wetlands and air clean than to restore it to safe or acceptable levels.

How do we determine what is safe? And who decides what is acceptable? That is the crux of what happened at the ERC.

Most reasonable people shake their heads and ask why in the world any sane person would condone putting dangerous toxins in our surface waters. The simple answer is because powerful and influential industries benefit.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administers the Clean Water Act that regulates the discharge of pollutants into the nation's surface waters, including lakes, rivers, streams, wetlands and coastal areas.

Each state has the responsibility to develop its own plan. In Florida, DEP is the key agency responsible for our water quality. Others play important roles — the Legislature sets policy and five water management districts manage the resource.

Then there's the Environmental Regulation Commission.

The ERC is a nonsalaried seven-member board appointed by the governor. The members represent agriculture, development, local government, citizens, and the environmental, scientific and technical communities.

The commission can't initiate action or develop rules. It reviews rules set by DEP.

The ERC is operating with five members. The governor has not filled the seats representing the environmental community and local governments. The monthly meetings for the first six months of 2016 were canceled.

The ERC was planning to review the Human Health Criteria rule later in the year, but the vote was moved up to the July meeting. Many environmental activists and concerned citizens were angered, believing the vote would have failed on a 3-4 vote with a full board.

The Clean Water Act actually permits pollution and then regulates it. This includes pollutants from industry such as manufacturing, mining, oil and gas extraction and agriculture.

By adopting the DEP's Human Health Criteria rule, the ERC established pollutant standards for 39 currently unregulated chemicals and raised levels for nearly two dozen more. The tradeoff is that they reduced the levels of some others.

How is this a win for water quality? It's not.

The fallacy is that regulation — in and of itself — makes us safer. It doesn't. It offers empty assurance while removing barriers for dangerous activities like fracking to take place.

The timing is suspect after the Legislature recently failed to pass a fracking bill where the same promise of regulatory protection was offered and rejected.

Gov. Rick Scott is letting the unelected ERC take the public heat. ERC members — appointed by Scott — can then point to the EPA as a scapegoat to justify their actions.

The EPA is not forcing the state to accept lax standards. Florida can and should develop a more stringent rule for the public health, welfare and safety of its 20 million residents and 100 million tourists.

It all boils down to this — cancer-causing chemicals are bad. Don't put them in our water.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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