House members vent against EPA water standards

Members of a Florida House panel complained today about the potential cost of water quality standards that could be proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in January, agreeing with industry representatives who said businesses and households will be affected.

Scientists say high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus are contributing to algal blooms in springs, rivers and beaches across the state. But the state lacks specific numeric limits for nitrogen and phosphorus and instead only prohibits levels that cause an imbalance among fish and wildlife.

The EPA in August agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by environmental groups by proposing numeric limits in January for some water bodies and adopting them by October. A federal judge will consider approving the settlement agreement at a court hearing on Nov. 16.

But wastewater utilities, agriculture and industry groups say they’re concerned that the proposed limits will be too strict. And members of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee overwhelmingly echoed those concerns as industry representatives urged the state to try to block the agreement.

Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers and committee chairwoman, opened the workshop by saying that establishing the specific limits is “reckless during these economic times.” She said the workshop was the first of several to be held by the committee on the issue.

Representatives of the Florida Water Environment Association, representing wastewater utilities, told the committee that the federal standards are expected to more than double the average monthly combined water and wastewater bill in Florida from $56 to $118.

Although EPA has not yet proposed any limits, an association representative said the estimate was based on a similar statistical approach taken by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection earlier this year toward setting nutrient limits. The state put its rule-making on hold in August after the environmental groups, including the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and St. Johns Riverkeeper, announced the proposed settlement with EPA.

The utility association today filed its own federal lawsuit challenging EPA’s decision earlier this year that the numeric criteria were required. Industry groups said they favored the state’s approach toward setting criteria that were suitable for individual waterways rather than any alternative being developed by EPA.

“This idea we are talking about today is the stupidest idea to come down the pike in my 35 years of water management,” said Henry Dean, former director of the South Florida and St. Johns River water management districts. He said he now represents several municipalities, which he did not name.

Representatives of the Florida DEP said they have not objected but they stopped short of saying they would not take action.

“I will tell you there is nobody in this room who has interacted with EPA more than I have and I can tell you I have no idea what EPA will propose,” said Jerry Brooks, director of Florida DEP’s Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration.

But committee members rejected any notion of waiting for EPA to propose its standards as they seemed to accept Dean’s suggestion that they adopt a resolution opposing the court agreement.

“This is out of your hands now,” Rep. Greg Evers, R-Baker, told Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole. “You continue to do your job … I think it’s up to this committee and the Legislature to take care of the feds at this point in time.”

Representatives of the Florida Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club were present but did not speak. Sierra Club regional representative Cris Costello of Sarasota told she disagreed with House members who said Florida was being singled out. She also said there was little mention of the harm to tourist-related businesses when algal blooms spread across Florida waterways.

“We are surrounded by water on three sides,” she said. “I think it is being very short-sighted to talk about the cost of preventing pollution and protecting water quality when the cost of not preventing pollution or protecting water quality is mind-boggling.”

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

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