EPA tells Florida: Enforce rules on fertilizer in canals

Saturday, November 19th 2011. | Science News

After years of legal ink-slinging, missed deadlines and countless hours of mind-numbing scientific testimony, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tentatively agreed this month on pollution rules to protect Florida’s lakes, rivers, estuaries, streams and springs.

Enforce rules on fertilizer in canalsAs for canals – some of the state’s most polluted waterways – the deal is off if the state decides to exempt all canals in the state from the pollution rules, a move being pushed by some of the state’s most powerful industries. If the state doesn’t earn the EPA’s approval by March, the EPA will impose its own rules – stricter than those the state now proposes – and could take over permitting altogether.

“There is a lot at stake here, and we need EPA to approve the rules,” Drew Bartlett, the DEP’s director of the Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration, said at the Nov. 3 meeting of the state’s Environmental Regulation Commission. “It’s the department’s opinion that the state is best served by the department’s rules, the department’s permits and the department’s managed actions.”

The pollution limits need to be set in order to settle a 3-year-old lawsuit by environmental groups to limit nutrients from fertilizer, manure and urban runoff that cause algae blooms, kill wildlife, pollute the Everglades and fuel the growth of unwanted plants.

Although setting pollution limits for canals would seem to be a simple chore after dealing with the complex ecosystems of the state’s larger water bodies, it has become a potential deal-breaker in a suit that has cost taxpayers $20 million.

Palm Beach County’s water utility customers discovered the impact of the seemingly arcane rules when they opened their water bills in November 2010 to find a message from the utility saying that the EPA’s pollution limits could raise their monthly water bills by $75.

Environmental groups countered by saying that amount was grossly exaggerated and amounted to scare tactics.

“No one knows Florida waters better than we do,” DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard told the commission. “The future of Florida to maintain control of its waters depends on these rules.”

The legal wrangling began in July 2008, when environmental groups sued the EPA, claiming that Florida had failed to set nutrient rules, as required by the EPA in 2003. In a settlement approved in November 2009, the EPA agreed to set pollution limits by October 2010 and encouraged the state to develop its own proposal.

Florida failed to meet the October deadline and the EPA proposed its own standards. But the agency also gave the state another chance, until March 6, 2012, to propose its own limits. Missing that deadline would mean Florida’s inland waterways would be governed by the EPA’s rules.

With the clock ticking, the DEP finished its proposal. The federal agency responded to it Nov. 2 with an encouraging letter, saying it would approve the DEP’s proposals for lakes, rivers, estuaries, streams and springs. But canals are iffy.

Under the state’s proposals, canals in South Florida are exempt from the rules, because most canals are man-made and designed to move water and prevent flooding. However, canals in North Florida are not exempt, because many are not man-made but naturally flowing. These canals contain plants and animals that are not found in man-made canals and therefore need protection by the state’s pollution rules, the state says.

The EPA agrees. However, northern counties, cities and water management districts that oversee canals in northern Florida also want to be exempt from the new rules and intend to fight hard for the exemption. If that happens, the EPA will not approve the state’s plan.

The Environmental Regulation Commission will decide whether to approve the state’s plan at its Dec. 8 meeting. It then would go to the legislature, which will be busy with redistricting when it starts its session in January.

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