EPA Prescribes Florida Tough Medicine for Everglades
State May Balk at Stringent Federal Water Quality Measures and Timetables
Tallahassee — Facing a federal contempt citation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Florida to take immediate and dramatic attempts to reduce water pollution in the Everglades, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). If EPA cannot get Florida to accept its conditions, it may lead to a federal takeover of state water pollution controls.
On October 7, 2010, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson will personally appear before U.S. District Court Judge Alan Gold in a contempt hearing into repeated violations by EPA and Florida of a 2008 ruling to comply with phosphorous limits for sensitive Everglades waters. On the September 3rd deadline set by Judge Gold, EPA announced that it had a plan to comply with the order and avert a contempt finding but the agency did not release any details. This coyness may be explained by the fact that this new set of EPA Everglades dictates, called the “Amended Determination,” go far beyond any previous actions, including –
- Florida is ordered to amend both its controversial Everglades Forever Act and its phosphorus rule to significantly cut pollution flows;
- In order to reduce phosphorus loading into canals, the state must purchase at least 42,000 acres of land as Stormwater Treatment Areas; and
- Existing water pollution permits must be tightened to conform to new limits by December 3, 2010.
The EPA Amended Determination also flatly declares that Florida is violation of the Clean Water Act and can no longer be allowed to ignore nutrient standards for the Everglades Protection Area. It indicates that if Florida does not take the stipulated steps EPA will directly impose these actions under federal law.
“We welcome this no-nonsense approach. Our only question is where the heck has EPA been for the past twenty years? These woeful conditions did not suddenly appear overnight,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) enforcement attorney, who obtained the EPA plans under Florida’s Sunshine Act. “EPA does leave one big loophole, however, by allowing variances or exceptions to avoid compliance schedules, raising the possibility that under political pressure exceptions could grow to swallow the rule.”
The EPA-imposed deadlines are especially aggressive, and include the completion of state rulemaking by the first of the year – a timeline that assumes no major challenge or litigation. There is already sharp resistance by business groups and the DEP to an earlier, more modest move by EPA to set numeric water quality standards in Florida. This more extensive federal intervention could set off even broader and more intense opposition.
“The chances that Florida will actually abide by this new tough regime are about as likely as a major snowfall down here in August,” added Phillips. “Without Judge Gold holding officialdom’s feet to the fire things would remain business as usual.”