Florida Slammed With Tough Nutrient Standards

The new standards pit environmentalists and EPA against a coalition of elected officials, farmers, municipalities and business leaders.

by James Laughlin, Managing Editor

The new standards pit environmentalists and EPA against a coalition of elected officials, farmers, municipalities and business leaders.

I was at a recent water industry meeting and one of the folks from Florida expressed the opinion that the Environmental Protection Agency's new numeric nutrient standards for that state would never be implemented -- instead, the issue would be tied up in the courts for years.

Florida is the only state in the nation that will be required to meet the criteria and, if the rule survives anticipated legal challenges, it could set a precedent for implementing similar rules in other states. EPA is already planning a "pollution diet" for the Chesapeake Bay region and has indicated that it intends to adopt a similar approach in the Gulf of Mexico drainage basin.

The new standards pit environmentalists and EPA against a coalition of elected officials, farmers, municipalities and business leaders from across the state. The rule establishes numeric limits on the discharge of nitrogen and phosphorous from sewage treatment plants and on stormwater runoff. Opponents say the new water standards are unreasonable and that the amount of money required for municipalities to comply will cause water bills to double or triple and property taxes to skyrocket.

Proponents of the new regulations argue that that cost will be minimal and that water standards are necessary to force treatment of discharges from sewage treatment plants, septic tanks and runoff from farms and urban areas they say are choking lakes, rivers and other interior Florida waters with algae blooms.

The EPA contends that 1,918 miles of rivers and streams, 378,435 acres of lakes and 569 square miles of estuaries in the state are impaired by nutrients.

The rules are a result of a 2008 lawsuit brought by environmental groups, including the Florida Wildlife Federation, accusing EPA of failing to properly enforce the Clean Water Act.

State officials have sent a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson asking her to postpone action. They claim that to meet the standards municipal wastewater facilities would need to spend more than $4 billion on new treatment systems. And that pales in comparison to the more than $17 billion cost of treating stormwater runoff.

Environmentalists claim those numbers are wildly inflated.

Ironically, the Florida Wildlife Federation was one of the first groups to file suit to block the new rule, claiming it includes a huge loophole that would allow an end-run around the standards.

EPA has allowed a 15 month delay in implementation of the new standards, giving cities, towns, businesses, and other stakeholders time to develop strategies for implementation.

EPA has said it will work closely with the state to determine the next steps to achieve the objectives of the standards. The agency insisted the standards do not take a "one-size-fits-all" approach, but reflect conditions in five different watershed regions and allow for case-by-case adjustments based on local environmental factors.

I'm guessing those "adjustments " won't play to well with the environmentalists, who want no variation from the standards. In the end, I doubt anyone will be happy with the result of this rule. I think it's safe to say this is merely a first step along a long and arduous path.

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