Maxwell: Don't be fooled by environmental bills in Washington, Tallahassee

Published Mar. 1, 2015

Game on!

How else do we describe the portent of President Barack Obama's veto of a GOP-sponsored bill that would have forced authorization of the 875-mile Keystone XL pipeline? By rejecting the bill, Obama not only enraged Republicans; he deepened the wrath of the oil industry and other businesses with financial interests in the venture.

The veto is being called a "milestone" in Obama's presidency. Not only will it bring more partisan gridlock in Washington, its ideological impact will be felt nationwide, especially in Florida where environmental problems such as water pollution, sea level rise and wildlife habitat loss are worsening.

While the environment did not play major roles in midterm Senate races, triumphant Republicans are gearing up for a broad and sustained assault on environmental policies they deem harmful to the bottom lines of businesses.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said his top priority is "to try to do whatever I can to get the EPA reined in."

A Washington-based writer dubbed the remainder of Obama's presidency as the congressional Republicans' "regulation-hunting season." It is an apt description.

To begin the well-planned assault, the GOP-dominated House Transportation and Infrastructure and Senate Environment and Public Works committees convened a joint hearing to attack the Clean Water Act. Members of the committees grilled Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy on the agency's proposal to expand the authority of the Clean Water Act.

According to the National Journal, a nonpartisan magazine that reports on politics and policy trends, the GOP has staked out 10 environmental rules to kill: the Clean Power Plan; Endangered Species Act; Ground-Level Ozone Standards; Methane Regulations on Oil and Gas Production; Renewable-Fuel Standard; Rules for Fracking on Public Lands; Waters of the United States; Coal Ash Disposal; Stream Buffer Zone Rule; and the Social Cost of Carbon.

Although these rules clearly protect the environment and public well-being, Republicans see them as job-killers and constraints on free enterprise itself.

States with Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures are eagerly adopting Washington's antienvironment and anti-Obama agenda. In Florida, voters tend to approve measures that protect the environment, especially the Greater Everglades. But the governor and Republican legislators routinely find ways to circumvent the will of the people to please various industries, many of them heavy polluters.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, for example, is pushing a bill (HB 7003) that will alter how the state manages water. Putnam's apparent goal is to loosen rules and lower enforcement. Under the bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Matt Caldwell, standards for water quality will be rolled back while the state works more aggressively to harvest new water resources.

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Now the governor, with enforcement powers, heads the Department of Environmental Protection and the water management districts. This bill puts more oversight authority into the hands of Putnam, a man who hails from a wealthy agricultural family and who is a good friend of Big Sugar, the state's worst agricultural polluter.

The new arrangement puts Putnam in the lead of cleanup efforts for the 3.5 million acres of land north of Lake Okeechobee. Although the Department of Agriculture has only eight staffers to manage those 3.5 million acres, Putnam has assured lawmakers that these eight souls can perform inspection miracles.

The most harmful provision of the bill is that the relatively effective permitting process now used by the South Florida Water Management District to reduce discharge into Lake Okeechobee would be scrapped and replaced by an industry standard of so-called "best practices."

In other words, agribusiness, developers and other polluters — who profit from cutting corners — would be trusted to do the right thing, to earnestly reduce toxic discharges into Lake Okeechobee.

During seasons of excessive rain, the lake's dirty water is moved south and to each coast by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and SFWMD. The phosphorous-laden water that goes south ends up in the endangered Everglades, where, ironically, the world's largest restoration effort struggles to make a serious dint in eliminating hazardous conditions.

In a statement following the House Appropriations Committee's approval of the water bill on Feb. 19, Putnam served up boilerplate to hide the duplicity: "I thank (House leaders) for supporting a water bill policy that will secure the supply and quality of Florida's water for generations to come. Florida's water is one of our most precious resources, and the management of water quality and conservation has been and always will be a partnership."

Do not be fooled. The legislation is mostly a diversion that will please developers and farmers. Like many other GOP efforts in Florida, Washington and elsewhere, the bill is part of a campaign to roll back environmental protections.