Worrisome future with Florida winning right to use state water quality standards

January 9, 2014 

Florida won the latest skirmish in the more than 15-year-old war over water quality standards in the state. With environmentalists vowing to mount a counterattack, Florida's invaluable waterways could remain subjected to excessive contamination and toxic algae blooms -- to the detriment of tourism, recreation and fishing. Fertilizer, manure and sewage contamination brings toxic slime outbreaks that kill manatees, dolphins, fish and birds around the state.

A federal judge agreed Tuesday that Florida and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can proceed with a 2013 agreement that allows the state to set limits on nutrient contamination.

The federal agency had entered into an agreement with environmental groups in 2009 to settle a lawsuit over Florida's years-long failure to adhere to Clean Water Act standards.

But the EPA's proposed strict limits on the allowable content of nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways brought howls of protest from industry organizations and legislative leaders, which cited excessive costs and burdensome regulations.

With the court decision, the state Department of Environmental Protection's new numeric nutrient criteria on nitrogen and phosphorus will apparently be implemented. The EPA abandoned its stricter standards in agreeing that the state's approach meets Clean Water Act requirements.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert L. Hinkle wrote: "Now, as then, the Clean Water Act depends in part on honest administrative enforcement of duly adopted standards. At least as shown by this record, FDEP's new standards have been duly adopted."

Adopted, yes. The jury's out on future enforcement as the standards go into effect -- should that even occur given the environmentalists' objection to the ruling. The state has a track record of dragging its feet on Clean Water Act requirements for more than a decade.

In dismantling the state Department of Community Affairs several years ago, the state ended vigorous scrutiny of development proposals -- to the consternation of environmental and civic activists.

The Legislature also repealed some environmental protection laws, including septic-tank-inspection requirements adopted only three years ago.

Legislative attempts to ban local regulations limiting fertilizer use have failed over the past few years, another strike against its environmental record.

Manatee County is one local government that restricts the use of nitrogen or phosphorus products on residential urban landscapes during the rainy season, protecting waterways from contaminated stormwater runoff.

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility issued a report last summer that tabulated the Scott administration's record on enforcement of existing environmental regulations. The number of new cases, penalties assessed and fine collected dropped sharply from 2011 to 2012 -- by well more than half.

Can the state be trusted to strictly enforce its own new water quality standards? History shows that the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott's administration favor business over the environment, so we rate the odds very low that the answer to that is yes.

Should Florida fail to adhere to Judge Hinkle's call for "honest administrative enforcement of duly adopted standards," though, we expect a strong court response.

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