1. Opinion

Editorial: EPA should reject Florida's new water standards

Published Jul. 29, 2016

A state panel approved new water quality standards this week that defy both conventional science and common sense. The Environmental Regulation Commission voted to increase the amount of some cancer-causing chemicals that polluters can dump into Florida's waterways under an accelerated process that kept important voices out of the debate. Fortunately, the change cannot take effect without the federal Environmental Protection Agency's approval. The EPA should reject it, and the state should come up with standards that protect Florida's environment and safeguard human health.

The Environmental Regulatory Commission, appointed by the governor, approved a policy overhaul that increases Florida's list of regulated chemicals allowed in drinking water from 54 to 92 and raises the allowed limits on more than two dozen known carcinogens. It also reduces the allowed limits on 13 currently regulated chemicals, two of which are considered carcinogens. Department of Environmental Protection officials defend the illogical change — reducing limits on some cancer-causing agents while increasing others — as a scientifically based "update." But the public has plenty of reasons to distrust that explanation.

For one, the DEP developed the new standards with a method that no other state uses. The DEP says its "probabilistic analysis" is Florida-specific, accounting for toxins that can be passed on to humans who eat locally caught seafood. But environmentalists say the state underestimated seafood consumption, meaning the new standards would actually increase exposure to cancer risk for many.

Also concerning: Some industries responsible for discharging the toxic chemicals, including dry cleaners, paper mills, agriculture and oil and gas companies, support the new standards while environmentalists oppose them. In fact, critics wonder if the specific change to the substance benzene isn't a crack in the door to allow fracking in Florida.

The DEP initially proposed raising the limit for benzene, a byproduct of fracking, from 1.18 parts per billion to 3 parts per billion. After public outcry, the agency reduced the level to 2 parts per billion. So much for a science-based process.

Even if the DEP could find scientific backup for every decimal point, the way the new rule was approved undermines the entire effort. With no reason offered, the Environmental Regulation Commission's vote was moved up from September, and it went forward despite two vacancies on the seven-member commission. The slot for a representative from the environmental community and the one representing local government have been left vacant by Gov. Rick Scott. The commission passed the new rule on a 3-2 vote. Would the measure have failed 4-3 if those constituencies had their say? The public will never know.

State regulators are entrusted with keeping Florida's water clean and safe, and the system appears to have been rigged in favor of the polluters. The standards approved this week were described by one commissioner who voted for them as "more good than harm." That's not good enough for Florida, and the EPA needs to hammer home that message by rejecting the changes.