Prompted by proposed state regulations it says are inadequate, a coalition of environmental groups on Thursday filed an administrative challenge to the new rules set up to determine acceptable pollution levels in Florida waters.
Earthjustice attorney David Guest said the group filed the challenge at the Division of Administrative Hearings in response to recently proposed state clean water standards that the lawsuit contends fall far short of Federal Clean Water Act requirements imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The lawsuit claims Florida is failing to protect residents and tourists from nauseating—and dangerous—toxic algae outbreaks.
“Toxic algae outbreaks are a public health threat and they also affect Florida’s bottom line,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “These outbreaks can cause rashes, breathing problems, stomach disorders, and worse. Health authorities have had to shut down drinking water plants, beaches and swimming areas. Toxic algae can kill fish, livestock and pets, and we need to be cleaning it up.”
The state Division of Environmental Protection rule “was basically written by lobbyists for corporate polluters,” said Guest, said Guest, whose group successfully sued in 2008 over the adequacy of the state’s water pollution standards, which resulted in the federal EPA stepping in to impose numeric criteria for nutrients in water. “Polluters know it is cheaper for them to use our public waters as their private sewers, and the state is giving them the green light to keep doing it.”
After years of seeing toxic algae outbreaks on Florida tourist beaches like Sanibel Island and at fishing destinations like the St. Johns River, Earthjustice filed the Clean Water Act federal lawsuit in 2008 in the Northern District of Florida on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. John’s Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club.
After negotiations with the state, however, the EPA backed off, with DEP agreeing to propose its own set of numeric criteria for the phosphorus and nitrogen that comes from sewage, fertilizer and manure in Florida waters, as required by federal officials.
The 30-page challenge filed Thursday contends that the new proposed DEP rules will still result in years of delay in cleaning up Florida waters and let the state off the hook on protecting Florida waters from ill effects of nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients in Florida’s lakes and streams.
The federal standards had been opposed by a host of groups from the business community, power generators and government officials from both sides of the political fence who said the federal rules were inflexible and too expensive to enact, a claim the coalition rejects.
The new state-drawn rules “are not designed to protect state waters from adverse impacts of nutrient over-enrichment,” the complaint asserts. “Instead these rules go so far as to prevent finding of impairment due to nutrients until the water body is covered with nutrient-fueled toxic blue-green algae.” (See the full text below.)
Joining Earthjustice in the challenge is the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Sierra Club, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and St. Johns Riverkeepers.
“This is not just an environmental issue,” said St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon. “This is an economic issue.”
The 2008 lawsuit filed by Earthjustice 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.
In 2009, the EPA set numeric limits for the phosphorus and nitrogen that comes from sewage, fertilizer and manure in Florida waters. But in November, the state DEP sent Washington an alternative, a slate of draft rules for state numeric measuring of nutrients, and EPA announced that it was likely to approve them.
Opponents of the EPA rules said 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.
–Michael Peltier, News Service of Florida