TALLAHASSEE — The federal government will attempt to set Florida’s water pollution standards — the first time it’ll try that for any state — under an agreement approved Monday.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle rejected objections from state and local government agencies as well as agriculture and business interests. They had argued the agreement would result in hastily drawn, unscientific rules and that complying with them would be too costly as taxpayers and businesses cope with the recession.
In approving the consent decree between five environmental groups and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Hinkle noted that it allows for delays in the rule-making process to make sure regulations are proper. He said other objections are premature and must wait until after the proposed regulations have been drafted.
“This consent decree does not require an invalid regulation,” Hinkle said at the end of a two-hour hearing. “This is a reasonable compromise.”
The environmental groups had sued EPA, arguing it had a duty to step in under the federal Clean Water Act. They argued the Florida Department of Environmental Protection hadn’t complied with a 1998 EPA decision that states should set numerical limits for nutrients in farm and urban runoff.
That pollution has been blamed for causing algae blooms in Florida’s inland and coastal waters. The environmentalists’ lawyers showed Hinkle poster-size photos of waterways clogged with lime-green scum.
“It’s so serious that it’s harmful for people to have human contact, dangerous for your pets to drink, shuts down drinking water plants,” environmental lawyer David Guest said after the hearing. “It’s a threat to the tourism industry. It’s a threat to waterfront property values.”
Guest represents the Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and St. Johns Riverkeeper.
The agreement is seen as a precedent that could serve as a model for other states. It won’t be final until Hinkle issues a written order. He said he couldn’t promise when he’ll do that except that he’d try to be quick.
Lawyers for the objectors, including Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, said their clients have not yet decided whether to appeal.
Bronson isn’t the only politician critical of the agreement. Attorney General Bill McCollum last week wrote Florida Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole a letter that said Florida shouldn’t have been singled out. McCollum asked him for a status report on the dispute at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.
The judge said he also planned to consolidate three separate lawsuits challenging a Jan. 14 EPA decision that Florida needs the numerical standards.
The state now has descriptive standards that determine when waters are polluted, but Guest said numerical standards would provide an early warning.
The decree says EPA must propose rules for lakes, rivers and other freshwater bodies by Jan. 14, 2010, and issue a notice of final rule-making by Oct. 15, 2010. It must do so for coastal and estuarine waters by the same dates in 2011.
Those deadlines are too soon, said Terry Cole, a lawyer for several agriculture and pulp and paper trade groups as well as the Florida Stormwater Association, made up of local and regional government agencies.
Cole argued the state should be allowed to set its own standards but would need more time because the scientific issues are complex.
Hinkle, though, pointed out Florida already has had 11 years to do that.
“How long do we need?” he asked.
Cole said he didn’t have an answer.
The state could pre-empt the EPA regulations by adopting its own standards first.
EPA lawyer Martha Collins Mann disputed arguments that her agency would adopt a one-size-fits-all standard. She said the agency’s proposed rules would take into account differences between various water bodies.