Washington, DC — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers refuses to contribute a dime to Florida water projects to reduce high levels of pollution flowing into and out of Lake Okeechobee, according to a memo released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Corps claims the state is disqualified from federal assistance due to its continuing violation of minimum national water quality standards, noting that the state “is not likely to come into compliance for several decades.”
These harsh pronouncements are contained in a May 25, 2007 memo from Major General Don Riley, Director of Civil Works for the Corps, to Army Assistant Secretary J.P. Woodley. In that memo, Gen. Riley rejects overtures for a “50-50 cost sharing” between South Florida Water Management District and the Corps on Lake Okeechobee water treatment projects, citing both law and national policy stipulating that “the State must be in compliance with WQ standards for the current use of the water and the work proposed must be deemed essential to the Everglades restoration effort.”
By contrast, Gen. Riley contends that the state plans fail to meet either prong of this test –
- Polluted Water Revolving Door. “Cleaning water deemed essential to the Everglades restoration which then flows into Lake Okeechobee which has significant pollution issues and then to propose that the same water must be cleaned a second time as it flows out through canals from the Lake’s several outlets calls into question the economic wisdom of the water quality features being considered in this project.”
- Lack of a Clean Up Plan. Gen. Riley points to the need for the state to set total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for the affected water-bodies so as to be able “‘to implement applicable water quality standards with seasonal variations and a margin of safety’ but that, as of April 1999, no TMDL program had been implemented.” In fact, Florida fired its key water quality lab manager after he reported horrendous pollution levels. Meanwhile, the state’s already long overdue TMDL program remains in limbo; and
- Unclear Relationship to Restoring the Everglades. “The Federal Government would pay 50% of these costs in one limited instance – that instance being where the water quality features are deemed essential to the CERP [Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan] restoration effort…In the case of the Lake Okeechobee project, no such determination has been made.”
“Florida’s approach to water pollution is pure science fiction,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former enforcement attorney with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). “When a state lab confirmed Lake Okeechobee water so dirty that it might as well have come directly out of the rear end of a cow, DEP fired the lab manager and compromised the data, leaving the entire South Florida TMDL program in chaos.”
PEER is representing that lab manager, Tom White, in pursuing a whistleblower claim and lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Congress overrode President Bush’s veto of a Water Resources Development Act which authorized substantial funding for CERP. Even if those projects do receive federal funding, the continuing deterioration of water quality in South Florida may stymie Everglades restoration.
“One major reason for rising Florida pollution levels is that the Corps continues to give out development permits like Halloween candy,” Phillips added. “On the issue of water quality, the Corps and the State of Florida are like two targets shooting at each other.”