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Miami Herald: Florida water rule a split decision for both sides

Monday, December 03, 2012

The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s split decision on new water pollution rules for Florida gives both sides in the contentious debate over the issue something to cheer and jeer about.

The EPA late Friday said it was approving rules drafted by the state for only about 15 percent of Florida’s 100,000 miles of waterways while adopting its own rules for the rest. Earlier Friday – the deadline for implementing a settlement with environmental groups – Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson filed a federal court notice in Tallahassee saying EPA would comply with the agreement.

The environmental groups that sued the agency, alleging it was dragging its heels on the issue, favor the EPA rules and contend the state’s alternative proposal is too weak to halt pollution that’s causing toxic algae blooms choking the state’s waters, killing fish and making people sick.

Agriculture, business and utility interests as well as Florida officials and political leaders including Gov. Rick Scott favor the state’s proposal, arguing the EPA rules would be too expensive to implement.

“The state of Florida has spent the past 14 years asking for more time to develop protective limits on sewage, manure and fertilizer pollution,” said Frank Jackalone, Florida staff director for the Sierra Club. “EPA has agreed to take immediate action to finally bring the Clean Water Act to Florida with strong rules that will clean up our slime-fouled springs, rivers, lakes and beaches.”

The agency, though, left the door open to later apply the state rules to more waterways. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which drafted the state’s proposal, indicated it intends to aggressively pursue that opening.

“While the EPA has approved the state’s criteria, we are disappointed about EPA’s decision to issue new proposed federal rules,” the state agency said in a statement. “We will work with them to craft solutions that will allow the state to assume all nutrient criteria rulemaking in Florida.”

That soothed some of the disappointment for opponents of the federal rules.

“The EPA’s stamp of approval on the Florida science backing the standards developed by FDEP is encouraging as the state will need to continue to work with the agency on new proposed regulations,” Associated Industries of Florida President and CEO Tom Feeney said in a statement.

Still, Florida Farm Bureau Federation President John Hoblick couldn’t put aside his disappointment, saying his group “is concerned that EPA decided to impose federal rules on water bodies that lack the study and science to force such limits.”

Both sets of rules would apply numeric standards for such pollutants as nitrogen and phosphorus, replacing present criteria that set no specific limits.

They differ, though, in how they would be applied. The state version adds additional biological and chemical indicators that would have to be present before the numeric limits could be triggered.

While EPA has agreed the state approach has merits, it sought an additional extension in Friday’s court-set deadline to continue discussions with state officials over remaining sticking points. The agency was forced to act, though, when U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle took no action on the request. In a June order granting a six-month delay Hinkle wrote that would be the last extension.

The EPA has set a public meeting on the new rules for Jan. 17-18 in Tampa and will hold a web-based public hearing Jan. 22-24.

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and St. Johns Riverkeeper.

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