Message is clear: Clean up Florida waters

Published Feb. 23, 2012

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and her legal allies from polluting industries are doing a victory dance over a U.S. District Court ruling that set back the federal effort to clean up the state's waterways. They might want to read the ruling again, for it amounted to a full-throated rejection of the campaign of falsehoods and fearmongering that monied interests and their Tallahassee enablers have waged at the expense of Florida's environment and economy.

At issue are new standards the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to reverse the pollution that now taints the state's lakes, springs and streams. Even before taking office last year, Bondi, Gov. Rick Scott and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam signed on to a withering disinformation campaign aimed at browbeating the EPA to drop or weaken its effort. The group threw anything against the wall: The EPA, they said, was jumping the gun, abusing its authority, singling out Florida and using junk science.

U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle, who is overseeing the case, dismissed the assault as mostly bunk in an 86-page order last week. Hinkle noted that the EPA had called for the cleanup standards 14 years ago, that the state had agreed and that EPA had supported Florida doing the job — despite its repeated foot-dragging. The judge found the EPA was not only appropriate to intervene, but had a obligation to under the federal Clean Water Act. With pollution fouling some 1,000 miles of rivers, 902 square miles of coastal area and 349,000 acres of lakes, the evidence of the need for the new cleanup standards was "overwhelming," the judge wrote. The state was acting so slowly, he noted, "there was no end in sight."

Hinkle also threw much-needed retardant on the effort by opponents to inflame the case as a states' rights issue. He said the EPA played it by the book, and it was natural to focus on Florida, given the state's fragile ecosystem. He also did a public service by not overlooking in his ruling the impact to surface waters by the power companies, ranchers and sewage utilities — "whose trade associations are participating in this litigation."

In the end, Hinkle upheld all but two of the EPA's new cleanup rules, rejecting those largely on technical grounds. In practical terms, it was not a convincing victory for the environment, given that the EPA has agreed to work with Florida and provide even more latitude. But Hinkle's ruling establishes that the federal government was right to move ahead, and it highlights how Florida's Republican leaders stood with the wrong side. That example of bad faith should not be forgotten, and it should guide the EPA as it enforces Florida's compliance with the new rules.