After two years of battling over who should set water pollution standards in Florida, two state and federal agencies Wednesday announced a truce of sorts -- at least for the moment.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protections officially began the process of imposing new hard caps on fertilizer, manure and municipal sewage pollution that have triggered foul, fish-killing algae blooms statewide from the St. Johns and St. Lucie rivers to Florida Bay.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency simultaneously issued a letter of praise, saying the draft proposal represented “significant progress’’ and the federal agency would likely withdraw its own controversial standards and approve Florida’s rules if a state review commission and state lawmakers don’t water them down.
But environmentalists accused both agencies of “capitulating’’ to powerful industries and political pressure from both parties in Washington and Tallahassee in crafting rules they charge already contain too many loopholes.
“This is regulation drafted by the folks that will be regulated,’’ said David Guest, lead attorney for Earthjustice, a public interest law firm that sued the EPA over Florida’s vague water quality standards in 2009 . “Whenever the fox guards the chicken house, the chickens are going to be eaten.’’
Frank Jackalone, Florida director of the Sierra Club, said “EPA caved to congressional pressure to put polluter interests above those of the Florida public.’’
The agencies, in statements, defended the state’s proposals.
DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard the state had spent millions of dollars to develop them and worked closely with the EPA to set guidelines for two troublesome nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus.
“If adopted, these rules will be the most comprehensive nutrient pollution limitations in the nation, and will serve to protect our rivers, lakes, streams, springs and estuaries,’’ he said.
In its letter, the EPA said it was prepared to approve the state standards based on preliminary review but could withdraw that offer and impose its own standards again if the proposal, which must be approved by the state Environmental Regulatory Commission and Legislature, is changed.
“The proposed rule reflects significant progress in protecting the state’s critical aquatic resources and we are hopeful that it will be fully enacted without modification,’’ said EPA regional administrator Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming.
In a “myth vs. reality’’ chart produced with the proposal, the DEP argued that unlike strict numeric standards, the state proposal also calls for a second “biological confirmation’’ test hat allows for natural variations and different uses in waterways and would also help prevent expensive and unneeded over-regulation of industries, utilities and farms.
That clause alone, said Guest, would leave the state where it was before the lawsuit, with vague standards that would allow farmers, utilities and industries to continue polluting until the ecosystem starts going belly up.
But Leticia Adams, policy director for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, told the News Service of Florida that the state can manage its pollution regulations better than Washington. “As Florida moves forward with this rulemaking effort, it is our hope that Washington will rescind its over-reaching and expensive regulatory mandate.”
The EPA first ordered states to set numeric nutrient limits in 1998, and then issued a warning in 2004 that it would intervene. But it took a lawsuit by environmentalists to force the federal agency to do so and the backlash since has proved fast and furious.
With nutrients flowing in from multiple sources -- fertilized lawns to sewage plants to cattle ranches to vegetable farms -- the EPA’s proposed regulations drew a broad, powerful range of critics including Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Farm Bureau, Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Stormwater Association and 60 other organizations and companies.
The groups bankrolled a lobbying blitz against rules they charged could cost billions and threaten Florida’s unstable economy. Several also joined the state’s still-pending lawsuit seeking to overturn the EPA standards.
Federal regulators and environmentalists have dismissed the cost estimates as wildly overinflated.
Florida congressional leaders from both sides of the aisle also waded in. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Melbourne Democrat with solid support from environmentalists, pressed for delays and independent reviews. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Miami Republican, joined GOP colleagues in calling the EPA regulations a “job-destroying mandate.”
Guest, the environmental attorney, said if the state and EPA approve the rules next year, he expects to file more legal challenges.
The leeway that the state has granted industrial interests for pollution discharges has left an increasing expanse of state waters sick, he said. The DEP’s own assessments show 16 percent of rivers, 36 percent of lakes and 25 percent of estuaries already “impaired’’ by pollution.