THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE – A panel of state regulators unanimously approved a new slate of statewide water pollution standards Thursday, following public testimony that included criticism from environmental groups over the new rules.
The vote puts the new standards a step closer to being final, but they still need legislative approval and an OK from the federal government.
Meeting to set specific numeric standards for pollution levels in Florida’s lakes, rivers, streams and other fresh water bodies, the state Environmental Regulation Commission approved the changes, which a Florida State University study estimates could cost $55 million to $160 million to implement, a figure below the $600 million figure that business groups say stricter federal standards could cost.
The proposed state rules, drafted by the Department of Environmental Protection, would replace the more stringent rules that were drawn up by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and slated to go into effect next year. The EPA later backed off its standards after criticism from business groups and Florida governmental leaders, and offered Florida the chance to write new rules for the amount of nutrients that can go into water, as long as Washington approves of the rules.
The proposed standards set numeric limits on nutrient content, but also allow water bodies to be judged in part on their level of imparity and the degree to which pollutants are affecting the surrounding biological ecosystem.
“Its’ been a difficult balancing process,” said ERC chairwoman Cari Roth. “I don’t want to wait and try to make it perfect. It’s been a long road to get here.”
The amended rule has already been challenged in the state administrative courts. EarthJustice, which originally filed suit against the EPA for failing to enforce clean water standards in Florida, has filed a challenge to the new rule with the Division of Administrative Hearings.
On Thursday, Earthjustice attorney Monica Reimer, said the group would review the newly amended DEP proposal.
“It is our belief that these rules are not only not going to prevent this degradation to continue, but they are going to make it worse,” Reimer said.
Business groups and several state officials, however, applauded the ERC’s passage of the criteria.
John Buss, representing the Florida Stormwater Association, said the new rules will make it easier to target clean-up funds to water that has already been determined to be impaired, a provision not included in the federal rule.
“Keep in mind that there are limited financial resources,” Buss said. “Any rule that misdirects a limited resource is working against our state’s water quality goals.”
The controversial issue has pitted federal regulators against state officials from both sides of the political aisle, who called the proposed EPA standards inflexible. The new standards, state regulators hope, will take into account the varying characteristics of Florida freshwater.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam praised the vote.
“The unanimous action by the ERC reiterates that Florida knows best how to protect Florida’s water resources,” said Putnam. “The ruling sends a strong message to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that, based on its strong history in protecting water resources, Florida is prepared to continue developing and implementing water resource protection programs.”
“We are pleased with the outcome of today’s vote, and look forward to working with the Florida Legislature to advance the most comprehensive nutrient pollution limitations in the nation,” DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard said in a statement. “Florida has invested millions of dollars to create nutrient rules that address the complexity of Florida’s waters, and we remain committed to finishing the job.”
The public will have an opportunity to review the new rules, make comments and file objections.