EPA Delays Florida Coastal Water Protection, Proceeds on Inland Water Rule

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, April 14, 2010 (ENS) – Federal standards to keep excess nutrients from tainting Florida’s coastal waters will not be ready this year, according to a letter released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER.

Instead, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will proceed with standards for springs, lakes and streams this year but standards for estuaries and coastal waters will undergo a new “third party review of the scientific basis,” a process that will last until 2011.

Nutrients are phosphorus and nitrogen that enter waterways from stormwater runoff, municipal wastewater treatment, fertilization of crops and livestock manure.

The March 17 letter from Peter Silva, EPA assistant administrator for water programs, to Michael Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection indicates that the federal agency has split off rulemaking on standards for coastal waters from the standards for inland waters.

The letter states, “First, the Agency has decided to delay finalizing promulgation of the ‘downstream protection value,’ or DPVs with respect to downstream estuary protection and to address this issue in the 2011 estuary and coastal rulemaking …”

The letter also states, “Second, EPA will seek additional third party review of the scientific basis for water quality standards to protect downstream estuarine and coastal waters. We commit to consult with FDEP on the scope of third party review and will announce in early April the specific plans for that review.”

“This appears to be more foot dragging by EPA, which has spent years avoiding doing its job for Florida’s waters,” said Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former water enforcement attorney with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Young alligator encounters an algae bloom in a Clearwater, Florida park. Polluted runoff from a nearby golf course feeds the algae. (Photo by David Mathews)

The correspondence was released as the EPA is holding a series of public hearings across Florida on the new rule to set numeric limits on the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen allowed in Florida waters.

The proposed rule would replace state narrative water quality criteria, which have been criticized as ineffective, and would apply only in the state of Florida.

The rulemaking to establish new nutrient limits is the result of a 2008 lawsuit brought by Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, St. John’s Riverkeeper, and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, represented by the law firm Earthjustice.

In August 2009, the EPA entered into a consent decree with the plaintiff environmental groups, committing to propose numeric nutrient standards for lakes and flowing waters in Florida by January 2010, and for Florida’s estuarine and coastal waters by January 2011.

“These dates are consistent with those outlined in EPA’s January 14, 2009 determination under the Clean Water Act that numeric nutrient standards are needed in Florida. EPA also agreed to establish final standards by October 2010 for lakes and flowing waters and by October 2011 for estuarine and coastal waters,” the agency said in a statement January 15.

But on the new schedule outlined in Silva’s letter, the EPA will propose new standards for estuaries and coastal waters in 2011, beginning a public comment and rulemaking process that could extend into 2012, a presidential election year.

At the first public hearing Tuesday in Fort Myers, about 150 environmentalists, business people and sports enthusiasts packed the meeting room at the Harborside Event Center to support the proposed standards to curb excess nutrient pollution in Florida waters.

Many attendees argued in favor of limits on the sewage, fertilizer and manure pollution in public waterways. They recounted stories from bygone times when the water was cleaner, seagrass beds were healthier and birds and fish flourished.

In recent years, the Caloosahatchee River and the coastal waters around Sanibel Island have suffered outbreaks of toxic algae and red tide that cause fish kills, close beaches, foul drinking water supplies, and destroy the tourism-dependent economy.

Dr. Richard Lewis testifies at the Fort Myers public hearing on new water quality standards for Florida. (Photo courtesy SFCC)

Representatives of agriculture and business groups told the hearing that the new standards would be too costly and are unscientific.

In his testimony on behalf of the Southwest Florida Chamber of Commerce, Dr. Richard Lewis, co-owner of HSA Scientists and Engineers, said the impact of this new regulation is anticipated to cost business, counties and cities, utilities and families billions of dollars each year.

“It is the consensus that our chamber members support the development of numeric nutrient criteria, but we believe the criteria should be based on sound science, ensure adequate time for development, and address our diverse water resources and the many restoration activities currently under way,” Lewis said.

Lewis encouraged the EPA to “slow down the process long enough to develop a better understanding of the economic impacts and feasibility of the new rules.”

“We are concerned that the cost of implementing systems to address numeric nutrient criteria may be cost-prohibitive for local municipalities considering that it affects how they treat their wastewater, reuse water, storm water and canal systems,” Lewis said. “Some estimates predict as much as $50 billion in capital improvements will be required to address the new criteria.”

In his March 17 letter, the EPA’s Silva indicates the federal agency will address these concerns by seeking additional review of the scientific basis for water quality standards for downstream estuarine and coastal waters.

“We will work together with Florida DEP to ensure we have the best science and analyses to support developing water quality standards to protect downstream estuarine and coastal waters,” Silva wrote.

The EPA says excess nitrogen and phosphorus, “can damage drinking water sources; increase exposure to harmful algal blooms, which are made of toxic microbes that can cause damage to the nervous system or even death; and form byproducts in drinking water from disinfection chemicals, some of which have been linked with serious human illnesses like bladder cancer.”

The EPA is holding two more public hearings this week on the proposed nutrient standards: