In a report card for the Gulf states, the group particularly faulted Florida for not setting specific limits for nitrogen and phosphorus in waterways, giving it an F in that category. Failure to set nutrients caused algal blooms and red tide along the coast, a Sierra Club representative said.
Florida received a C grade in the three other categories: Water quality standards, public health standards and public participation.
Regarding that F grade: The Florida Department of Environmental Protection earlier this year began setting numeric standards for nutrient pollution in response to a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency directive. Then EPA last month said it would step in and set those standards to settle a federal lawsuit filed by other environmental groups.
But a spokesman for the Gulf Restoration Network said Florida didn’t deserve a better grade because the report card is about measuring existing rules to protect water quality, not rules that are in the works.
“This is a place where they will hopefully be improving their grade,” said Matt Rota, water resources program director for the Gulf Restoration Network. “But we have learned to not trust things until they actually are on the books, until you can see them being implemented.”
“Every state should not be average,” he added. “Every state should be a straight-A student.”
Jerry Phillips, director of Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said DEP had opposed setting numeric criteria for nutrients in 2001 during a legal challenge to the state’s “impaired waters” rule.
In response, Florida DEP’s Jerry Brooks issued a statement saying that the report was “disappointing” because it did not measure “critical factors” needed to achieve water quality improvement.
“When one weighs the actual water quality progress made in Florida as compared to progress made across the nation, the level of investment in water quality restoration in Florida eclipses the efforts of many other areas of the country,” said Brooks, director of DEP’s Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration.
In its report card, the Gulf Restoration Network also faulted Florida for not having any “Outstanding Natural Resource Waters,” a designation that the groups said would prohibit degradation.
The “Outstanding Florida Waters” designation that is applied to some springs and waterways including the Suwannee River prohibits degradation, but the group said Florida’s permitting regulations offer too many exceptions to prevent pollution.
Gulf Restoration Network representatives said their report did not analyze how existing regulations are enforced. But Phillips, the PEER director, echoed his group’s past criticism of DEP for inadequate fines and lax enforcement against polluters.
“If Florida is to clean up its act, it will have to put safeguards in place so those frontline employees feel free to do their jobs based upon sound science as opposed to pleasing the political whims of their bosses,” Phillips said.
DEP was asked for a response to individual points raised at the news conference but spokesman Doug Tobin said the department may not be able to respond in time for publication.
Among the other Gulf states, Texas received a C-, Alabama and Mississippi both received a D+ and Louisiana received an F.
To learn more about the Gulf Restoration Network, go to www.healthygulf.org.
(Photo copyrighted by Sue Damon. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and FloridaEnvironments.com. Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)