Florida regulators voted to approve a new water quality standard Tuesday that will increase the amount of cancer-causing toxins allowed in Florida's rivers and streams under a plan the state says will protect more Floridians than current standards.
The Environmental Regulation Commission voted 3-2 to approve a proposal drafted by state regulators that would increase the number of regulated chemicals from 54 to 92 allowed in rivers, streams and other sources of drinking water.
"We have not updated these parameters since 1992. It is more good than harm,'' said Cari Roth, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents developers on the commission before the vote.
But the proposal, based on a one-of-a-kind scientific method nicknamed "Monte Carlo," is being vigorously criticized by environmental groups who warned that it will allow polluters to dump dangerous amounts of chemicals in high concentrations before they trigger the limits of the new rule.
"Monte Carlo gambling with our children's safety is unacceptable,'' said Marty Baum of Indian Riverkeeper, an environmental group based in Indian River County.
He and more than three dozen other environmentalists warned that the state's attempt to devise a new way to assess the risk of toxic chemicals on human health will result in higher concentrations of chemicals being dumped into Florida rivers and streams.
Under the proposal, the acceptable levels of toxins will be increased for more than two dozen known carcinogens and decreased for 13 currently regulated chemicals. The proposal also will reduce impose new rules on 39 other chemicals that could be dumped into Florida rivers and streams that are currently not regulated.
The agency defended the proposal, and its new Monte Carlo approach -- also known as "probabilistic analysis" -- saying it is more responsive to Florida variables by shielding people who consume large amounts of fish from the build up of dangerous toxins.
The approach attempts to calculate the health effects of being exposed to a lifetime of toxic chemicals by taking into consideration average body weight, drinking water consumption rate, fish and shellfish consumption rate, and the fat content of fish -- important because fat absorbs most of the toxins in seafood.
But during a seven-hour hearing in Tallahassee, more than three dozen members of the public, many representing environmental groups, raised concerns that the new state rule is 80 to 90 percent less protective than for most chemicals than the federal recommendations.
" All the new criteria that are added "are less protective than what EPA recommends,'' said Linda Young, executive director of the Florida Clean Water Network.
But DEP aggressively defended it proposal, saying it has been developing the criteria for more than a decade.
"The department has left no stone unturned to develop science-based and legally defensible criteria,'' said Tom Frick, director of the DEP division of environmental management and restoration, at a day-long meeting of the ERC.
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Adam Gelber of Miami, who represents science and technical interests, opposed the rule. He commended the department but said he was not confident that the information was based on Florida data.
He raised questions about the decision by DEP to increase the allowed levels of benzene, a known carcinogen. DEP initially proposed raising the standard from 1.18 parts per billion in Florida's drinking water sources to 3 parts per billion but, after public outcry, the agency revised its criteria and reduce the level to 2 parts per billion. The federal standard is 1.14 parts per billion.
"I fear there is a fatal flaw,'' Gelber said. "If we went back and adjusted the models, how would the other criteria drop?...It would appear to me there are some tweak in the system that could be made across the board."
Environmentalists say they are suspicious that DEP has increased levels of benzene, which is found in the wastewater of oil and gas fracking operations, in an effort to pave the way for legislation to open the door to fracking in Florida.
DEP officials, however, said that the science of benzene has changed in recent years resulting in the higher limits.
Also voting against the proposal was Joe Joyce of Gainesville, who represents agricultural interests on the commission. He also raised questions about the unexplained rise in benzene levels.
But Craig Varn, a lawyer from Miami, who was the DEP general counsel a year ago, said "fundamentally what it came down to either I'm going to accept the modeling as good or I'm going to reject it. ...I'm erring on the side of human health. Is it perfect, no?"
In an interview with the Herald/Times, Varn said he could not recall being involved in the development of the rule while he was general counsel.
Broward County's top environmental scientist was among those who urged the commission to reject the new rule, warning that they will also for dangerous concentrations of chemicals that may not be detected by testing.
DEP's documents acknowledge that permits can be allowed to require companies to meet the water quality standard in a water body after the discharge has passed through what is known as "mixing zones," thereby allowing for dilution and diffusion of the pollution beyond the point of discharge before its is tested, said Jennifer Jurado, director of Broward County environmental planning and community resilience division.
By contrast, she said, Broward County water quality criteria imposes a stricter standard, imposing water quality testing at the end of the pipe where the chemicals are discharged into a water body.
"So there is a lot of flexibility, depending on how they choose to apply the standard, that creates an exposure,'' she said.
The commission was scolded for not having its full complement of members while agreeing to reschedule the vote on the controversial rules from September to July.
As the commission was about to take a vote, John Moran, who identified himself as a graduate student from Stanford University, walked to the dias and sat in an open chair.
"The governor has spat on our decision process by keeping these seats vacant for over a year,'' he said. DEP security escorted him out.