By KEITH LAING – THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 10, 2010……Days after state environmental officials detailed to lawmakers their objections to federal water pollution standards opposed by the much of the state’s business and farming communities, a congressman running for agriculture commissioner said a deal could be in the water.
U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow, who joined the rest of the Florida congressional delegation in asking the federal Environmental Protection Agency to extend the period for public comment on the water standards, told the News Service that a third party arbiter could be brought into make the differing federal and state scientific analyses water under the bridge.
Among the possible referees, Putnam said, are the National Academy of Science and the EPA’s own Scientific Advisory Board.
Putnam said he thought members of the congressional delegation would be amendable to such a solution.
“It grows out of conversations with (DEP) Secretary Mike Sole,” he said, adding that asking for the delay was the delegation’s first move. “The longer play is to help reconcile the differences between the DEP and EPA’s scientific analysis. It’s indefensible to have something of this scope and the science would not have consensus.”
Causing the lack of consensus is an EPA proposal to set firm numeric limits on the amount of pollution in state bodies of water containing the chemicals phosphorous and nitrogen. DEP has argued that in some instances, “narrative” standards, which are enforced on a case-by-case basis, would be more appropriate.
The EPA plan is the result of a lengthy legal fight between the state, which argues that the standards would be unfair because they would only be applied to Florida, and environmentalists, who sued state regulators for failing to enforce the federal Clean Water Act.
Putnam said that EPA officials acknowledged when the congressional delegation met with the EPA administrator last month to request the comment extension that there were questions about the federal agency’s science.
“They met with the delegation in a bi-partisan meeting – we had both senators there, which sent a signal about how serious the entire delegation was,” Putnam said.
DEP officials did not respond immediately to requests for comment Wednesday, but Sole said this week after members of the department briefed a legislative panel on the EPA proposal that he was optimistic a deal could be reached.
Sole also agreed that water pollution in Florida needed to be addressed, saying “We’ve got real water quality issues we need to face in the state of Florida.”
However, a vocal opponent of DEP’s analysis who has argued that threats about increased costs associated with the EPA proposal have been exaggerated, said that a third party might not automatically be able to end the water fight.
“I think if the compromise is between what DEP wants and what EPA wants, that’s not going to be that is acceptable to my organization,” Linda Young of the Clean Water Network told the News Service. “I’m not even impressed with what EPA wants, much less some watered-down version DEP wants.”
Young said that if the final EPA standard did not meet the expectations of the environmentalists who forced the agency’s hand in court, the sides could end up back where they started.
“Whatever EPA decides is still open to challenge in federal court,” she said. “DEP is not the only people who have to be satisfied.”