Bill would prevent Florida from implementing federal water standards

A bill introduced by the chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee would ban the state from implementing new federal water quality criteria that were adopted in November.

Utilities, industries and agricultural groups say the numeric standards will cost billions of dollars to comply with. But an attorney representing environmental groups says the bill would have no effect if it was adopted because the state can’t ignore federal environmental laws.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in November issued new specific numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways, saying they were needed to combat toxic algal blooms along the coast and choked springs and waterways. The state Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit in December to block implementation of the federal rule.

HB 239 filed Tuesday by Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers, would prohibit the Florida Department of Environmental Protection from enforcing the federal standards. The bill also directs DEP to implement its own numeric standards, something it was working on until August 2009 when the federal EPA agreed to propose federal standards to settle a lawsuit filed by environmental groups.

David Guest, managing attorney for the nonprofit Earthjustice environmental law firm, said the legislation appears to be based on misinformation. His firm represents the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, and St. Johns Riverkeeper in its lawsuit against the federal EPA.

DEP can adopt its own numeric criteria at any time, Guest said. But it chose not to in August 2008, when the department had its own proposal before the state Environmental Regulation Commission, because of industry opposition. He said industry groups misled Williams with their complaints against the EPA.

“In the end you can’t escape federal law,” Guest said. “No legislative enactment has the power to void federal law.”

Williams could not be reached for comment. But Kurt Spitzer, executive director of the Florida Stormwater Association, said he also has concerns about the bill. His group joined the Florida League of Cities last week in filing a federal lawsuit to block the new federal rule.

The bill is “overly broad” because it also prevents local governments from implementing the federal standards. That could prevent local governments from getting stormwater permits that are based on the numeric criteria.

“It sort of puts us between a rock and a hard place — and maybe we can work some [bill] language out,” Spitzer said. “Parts of the bill are good, parts are maybe over-reaching a little bit.”

He also said the chances are slim that DEP would be able to implement the standards now. The ERC must approve any state regulations to implement them, Spitzer said, and they must be approved by the Legislature under HB 1565, the new law regarding rules that have a financial impact.

Asked for comment, spokespersons for DEP and EPA said they had not had time to review the bill. Last week, a DEP representative told the House Select Committee on Water Policy, chaired by Williams, that having the state — rather than the federal EPA — issue permits in Florida is good because it allows the state to control its own fate.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting