TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott authorized state officials Friday to ask the federal Environmental Protection Agency to back off on water pollution rules that Florida business and agriculture interests as well as many local government officials say will be too costly to implement.
Scott’s directive drew a sharp response from a lawyer for environmental groups that obtained a federal court settlement with EPA to establish the numeric nutrient limits for Florida.
“The idea there isn’t a problem is absolutely ridiculous,” said David Guest, a lawyer for Earthjustice. Guest said the governor’s action “is political posturing in its purest form” and particularly galling because “Scott is thumbing his nose at clean water on Earth Day.”
The standards, the first the agency has adopted for a state, are designed to prevent toxic algae blooms that have choked Florida waters, killing fish and sickening people. They are caused by nutrient-rich fertilizer, sewage and animal wastes.
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“Florida is one of the few states that has a comprehensive program in place to address excess nutrients, and we continue to lead the nation in developing innovative tools to ensure the health of our state’s waterways,” Scott said in a statement.
Environmentalists, though, say the state’s regulations are too weak because they don’t have specific limits on the amount of nutrients in Florida’s waters.
Guest cited a 100-mile toxic algae outbreak, the worst in Florida’s history, in the St. Johns River last year. The green slime halted boat traffic, kept people from swimming and piled dead fish on the river’s banks.
Earthjustice in 2008 sued the EPA on behalf of five environmental groups, alleging the agency had failed to enforce the federal Clean Water Act in Florida by relying on lax state regulations.
EPA settled by agreeing to establish the numeric nutrient rules.
Opponents say they’ll cost billions to implement. EPA officials say those cost estimates are exaggerated, but the agency has ordered an independent cost-benefit analysis in an effort to try to quell the criticism.
Scott authorized the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to formally ask EPA to rescind its January 2009 finding that federal standards are needed in Florida.
If EPA agrees, the agency then would be expected to repeal rules already adopted for lakes, rivers, streams and other inland waters, which are scheduled to go into effect in March 2012, and stop rule-making for coastal waters.
A news release from the governor’s office said a memo EPA issued in March on how states could reduce phosphorus and nitrogen pollution documents the strengths of Florida’s efforts to control those pollutants.
Guest said the state environmental agency itself acknowledged two years ago that numeric nutrient criteria would significantly address pollution and that EPA relied heavily on state data in developing its rules.
“It’s not that this was just pulled out of the sky,” he said. Guest said EPA also would need court approval to back out of the settlement.
The organizations that participated in the lawsuit are the Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.
The state in December filed its own lawsuit against EPA seeking to block implementation of the rules.