New EPA Water Nutrient Requirements Draw Ire of Business, State Leaders

November 8, 2011  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  News

The Sunshine State News – November 16, 2010

The months-long battle between Florida and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over freshwater nutrient standards reached a turning point Monday.

During a morning conference call, the EPA announced it will give Florida officials, including the Department of Environmental Protection, 15 months to comply with new numeric nutrient standards for freshwater lakes, streams and rivers.

In 2008, the Florida Wildlife Federation filed a lawsuit against the EPA for the federal agency’s neglect to enforce water purity standards in the Clean Water Act. Since a judge’s ruling in 2009, the EPA has been working to come up with more stringent standards for regulating levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in freshwater lakes and streams.

Environmental groups have blamed the high levels of nutrients for algae blooms that can kill fish and create skin irritations for swimmers. Representatives from the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and other environmental groups defended the EPA, saying the standards are necessary.

“Sewage, manure and fertilizer are killing the St. Johns River,” said Neil Armingeon, a St. Johns riverkeeper. “We believe that these numeric standards are the beginning of the saving of the St. Johns River.”

But state elected officials and business leaders say the new standards go too far.

U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Florida, who recently won the election for commissioner of agriculture, released a statement saying the EPA essentially ignored concerns about the effect implementation would have on Florida’s economy, and the bipartisan effort to back up the new rules with sound science.

“While the  EPA heeded our calls for additional time to implement numeric nutrient criteria in Florida by setting an effective date 15 months beyond the date of promulgation,” said Putnam, “the issue remains unresolved, and regardless of when implemented, the federal mandate will have a dramatic impact on our state’s economy.”

Putnam was among several newly elected officials who signed a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson Friday calling for a delay. He, along with Gov.-elect Rick Scott and incoming Attorney General Pam Bondi said the new standards could cost more than $20 billion.

Gwen Fleming, regional EPA administrator, says those figures are vastly exaggerated and based on the assumption that all wastewater treatment facilities would have to use the expensive reverse osmosis system to meet the new demands.

“That’s simply not the case,” said Fleming. “Prior to now, the only thing that has been out there is a lot of speculation and guesswork.

While the EPA’s estimate is significantly south of $20 billion, they still expect the new regulation to cost the state between $135 and $206 million.

Associated Industries of Florida President Barney Bishop cites estimates from municipalities and wastewater plants and says implementation will cost far more than the EPA thinks.

“Those numbers are out of fantasy land,” he said. “They have no basis in fact.”

In a testimony before the EPA, Bishop offered to write a $130 million check to the EPA if they would agree to pay anything over that.

“They didn’t take the deal, and they won’t take the deal,” said Bishop. It’ll cost us way more than that. It’ll cost us billions of dollars.”

Both Putnam and Bishop said the mandate was born of litigation and not scientifically based.

Continuing in his written statement, Putnam said the regulation “not only unfairly treats Florida differently than the other 49 states, it jeopardizes jobs throughout the state.”

Fleming says the reason Florida is the only state they’re imposing these standards on is because of the 2008 lawsuit. She also mentioned the DEP’s well-kept data on nutrient levels as another reason.

“It just happened to be, with the lawsuit and everything else in terms of the great database from which to work, that we were able to put these rules  in place,” said Fleming.

The EPA does provide for some flexibility. Fleming says they wanted to avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to implementing the standards, allowing for case-by-case adjustments depending on local environmental factors.

While some officials cited studies by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, a spokesperson from the DEP says those cost estimates were based on a hypothetical. Still, with the actual numeric standards now available from the EPA, the DEP is being cautious to pass judgment on the costs.

The department released a written statement saying, “[The] DEP will now analyze and address the remaining legal and scientific issues, as well as the policy considerations associated with moving forward on nutrients, to assure that the benefits are worth the costs to Floridians.”

Efforts to push back against the federal government-imposed standards are already under way.

“I urge my colleagues, as well as other state and federal leaders, to continue to press on for Floridians against this federal overreach and let sound science prevail to sustain our state’s economy and natural resources,” said Putnam.

Incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon said the House and Senate are planning to override a bill vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist that might limit the EPA’s power as well.

“Pushing back on the new nutrient rules and the EPA is something I’m very interested in. I think it’s a very big overreach by the federal government.”

If the veto is overridden Tuesday in the special session, HB 1516 would require legislative approval for new rules that cost more than $1 million over five years.

Incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos added his voice to the chorus.

“Clearly, the Florida-only water standards will cost Floridians jobs and I will do everything I can not just to delay this unneeded federal intervention but to permanently stop (the new standards) from taking effect,” he said.

After the 15-month implementation period is up, the DEP will serve as the primary enforcement agency. There will be no direct enforcement for noncompliance, but over time, the EPA may refuse to renew permits to industrial businesses and municipalities that discharge nutrient-rich water into the environment.

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