Monday, August 24, 2009

EPA, groups settle water dispute; Industry groups threaten challenge

Environmental groups say this algae bloom July 31 on a tributary of the St. Johns River was fueled by excessive nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous.

Environmental groups say a settlement agreement in a lawsuit over Florida's water quality standards will help begin the restoration of springs, lakes and rivers across the state.

Under a settlement with groups including the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the U.S. Environmental Protection agency will set numeric limits for nitrogen and phosphorus, which can cause algae blooms in Florida waters. Sources of nitrogen include fertilized lawns, agricultural operations and sewage treatment plants.

Environmental groups said the agreement was long overdue.

"This will be the engine that drives the restoration of Florida's rivers," said David Guest of the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

The EPA announced earlier this year that it would set those standards unless the state agreed to do so first. DEP officials said they agreed with the action and began work on setting limits earlier this year, including holding a pair of public hearings in June on a proposed rule.

Meanwhile, industry groups sent letters today and earlier this month warning of possible lawsuits challenging EPA's determination earlier this year. They said EPA based its decision on factors beyond the scope of the federal Clean Water Act.

With the EPA now moving forward, DEP said it's considering whether to continue moving forward with the rulemaking process.

"Florida has made a tremendous investment to collect and analyze the data necessary to define how nutrient enrichment affects the biological health of our surface waters," DEP Secretary Mike Sole said in a statement. "To ensure that there is no duplication of work, we will continue to work with EPA in the same manner they have worked with us as they develop the criteria."

Industry groups have raised concerns about DEP's approach, saying it arbitrarily places many water bodies in the "impaired" or polluted category without considering the geology and ecology of each waterway. The Florida Minerals and Chemical Council and the Florida Water Environment Association Utility Council have sent letters warning of possible lawsuits against the EPA.

The city of Tallahassee plans to spend $160 million to clean up its wastewater treatment plants to meet advanced treatment standards to reduce pollution of Wakulla Springs. Some proposals being floated by the state would establish even stricter standards than advanced treatment could meet, said attorney Winston K. Borkowski of the Hopping Green & Sams law firm in Tallahassee. He represents the industry groups that sent warning letters to EPA.

"It's like setting a 25-mph speed limit on an interstate highway," Borkowski said Monday. "It is certainly protective, but it is not rational."

On Friday, Earthjustice's Guest said concerns about cost from industry are predictable and overstated. But Guest also said that meeting numeric criteria likely will require additional treatment by sewage plants and could change the way homeowners use fertilizers and the way that farms dispose of their manure.

"There is an economic gain," he said. "Clean water makes money."

(Photo by Chris Williams, GreenWater Laboratories/CyanoLab, provided by environmental groups involved in lawsuit. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

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