Friday, December 10, 2010
Florida DEP credits controversial federal water standards
Environmental groups say this algae bloom in 2009 on a tributary of the St. Johns River was fueled by excessive nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorous.
A Florida Department of Environmental Protection official on Thursday for the first time sounded a note different from the sharp criticism leveled by state officials and industry representatives towards new federal water quality standards.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in November adopted limits on nitrogen and phosphorus in lakes, streams and rivers, with agency officials saying the limits are needed to prevent algae blooms in waterways and toxic red tides along the coast. But many elected officials and industry representatives criticized the new standards as being costly to cities, utilities, industry and agriculture.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Bill McCollum filed a federal lawsuit against the EPA on behalf of the state and Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson. McCollum said the standards were adopted in an "arbitrary and capricious manner" and were an abuse of agency discretion.
On Thursday, DEP's Jerry Brooks told the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation that the EPA standards incorporated enough flexibility to allow the state to decide whether to implement them. Those comments also were a striking difference from the criticism leveled against the EPA earlier this year when then-DEP Secretary Michael Sole told legislators they should "be afraid" of aspects of the EPA proposal.
Brooks told the committee Thursday that the EPA rule, by delaying implementation for 15 months, allows Florida to work with utilities and industry groups to help understand the standards. The delay, he said, also allows those utilities and groups to seek federal waivers for certain waterways.
EPA also has assured wastewater utilities they won't be required to use expensive reverse-osmosis treatment, Brooks said. Wastewater utilities previously estimated the cost of meeting the standards at $97 billion over 30 years.
"I don't want you to think that as I stand here today that we think the rule EPA adopted is perfect," said Brooks, who is director of DEP's Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration.
But he added, "I believe their rule has maintained enough flexibility we can do that [adopt state regulations] and capture those things we don't think they did exactly right in the development of the regulations."
But representatives of wastewater utilities along with the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida Electric Power Coordinating Group sharply criticized EPA and the new federal standards.
EPA's "slipshod" approach will delay the cleanup of waterways, said Paul Steinbrecher, representing the Florida Water Environment Association Utility Council.
He also said the federal rule still requires reverse-osmosis for wastewater treatment -- at a huge cost to utilities' customers -- even if EPA officials are saying utilities will receive waivers.
"Why would you publish a rule with these limits and then say, 'But most everybody is going to get out of it and will have to meet some other number instead'?" Steinbrecher said. "That makes no sense."
After the meeting, Brooks told The Florida Tribune that industry groups still are dealing with uncertainties and frustration with the federal rule-making process. He said it will be up to the administration of Governor-elect Rick Scott to decide whether the state wants to implement the new federal standards.
"In the end they [EPA officials] left a rule sitting there on the table that doesn't box us in," Brooks said.
Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness and the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation said he didn't know if the committee would develop legislation but he said it will work with state agencies on the issue. He said the committee's priorities may be developed as issues arise during the 2011 legislative session.
(Photo by Chris Williams, GreenWater Laboratories/CyanoLab, provided by environmental groups involved in a federal lawsuit over water quality. Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting email@example.com.)