THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, November 3, 2011 -
Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida
Bolstered by a letter of confidence from Washington, Florida's top environmental regulator on Wednesday said his agency would proceed with its proposed plan to set specific pollution levels for the state's inland and coastal waters.
Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard, said news earlier Wednesday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had given a preliminary nod to new state standards would allow the agency to continue its re-write of fresh water quality standards.
"This is the right thing for Florida," Vinyard said in a statement. "If adopted, these rules will be the most comprehensive nutrient pollution limitations in the nation, and will serve to protect our rivers, lakes, streams, springs and estuaries."
Vinyard's comments came shortly after an announcement by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Acting Assistant Director Nancy Stoner that the federal agency had given preliminary approval to state rules released for comment last month.
Stoner's letter cautioned state officials not to deviate significantly from the draft rules sent to EPA in October. Though the federal agency will continue to monitor the new rules, what federal officials have seen so far appear to make sense.
"While EPA's final decision to approve or disapprove any nutrient criteria rule submitted by FDEP will follow, our formal review of the rule leads us to the preliminary conclusion that EPA would be able to approve the draft rule under the CWA," Stoner wrote.
The announcement Wednesday comes on the eve of an Environmental Regulations Commission meeting, which is scheduled to consider the draft rules Thursday.
Water-quality standards have been a major issue in Florida during the past couple of years, as business groups and many state and local leaders have fought federal EPA efforts to impose stricter standards through what are known as "numeric nutrient criteria," specific guidelines for the amount of nutrient content that can go into fresh water bodies.
A 2008 lawsuit argued that the federal Clean Water Act wasn't being enforced in Florida, despite a ruling in 1998 ordering states to comply with an EPA edict to set verifiable limits on nutrient discharges that are largely responsible for algae blooms and other degradation of inland waters.
Opponents claim there's no scientific reasoning behind numeric limits on pollution, and contend that the criteria would force costly upgrades of facilities such as sewage-treatment plants, which discharge water into rivers and streams.
Supporters say the standards would help clean up the state's waterways, preventing health and environmental problems.
The fight over several years has been between environmentalists who have preferred a strict federal standard for Florida because they believe it is lax in regulating pollution, and the state, which says that a Washington-driven solution doesn't make sense in a unique state.
In a compromise of sorts, the federal government has agreed to let Florida try to write its own standards, as long as they have numeric criteria for nutrients going into the water, and the EPA will have the final sign-off power.
Business groups say Florida's DEP can regulate the state's pollution just fine.
"Florida has a comprehensive excess nutrient program and a long track-record of helping to ensure the health of our states waterways," said Leticia Adams, policy director for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "As Florida moves forward with this rulemaking effort, it is our hope that Washington will rescind its over-reaching and expensive regulatory mandate."
Environmental group EarthJustice filed a lawsuit against EPA seeking essentially to compel the adoption of numeric nutrient criteria, claiming that the state's different way of measuring pollution violates the Clean Water Act.
The group said Wednesday that the announcement by the EPA was a disappointment and does not adequately protect Florida fresh waters.
What we had here is a contest between the health and safety of Floridas families on one side and the deep-pocket polluters on the other," said EarthJustice attorney David Guest. "Unfortunately, today the polluters and their expensive lobbyists won.