Washington, DC — In one of the final acts of the Bush administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would set “water quality standards for nutrients” for all Florida surface waters. The action signals a breakdown in the state’s water pollution protection program so profound that federal intervention is required, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
Already, one-third of all Florida lakes, one-quarter of its estuaries and one-sixth of its rivers are officially classified as “impaired” by pollution. The January 14, 2009 U.S. EPA “determination letter” states that poor water quality in Florida is “likely to worsen” without federal action.
Currently, Florida lacks any quantitative or numeric pollution standards for nutrients, such as phosphorus. The state instead relies on a “narrative criterion” that pollution should not cause “an imbalance in natural populations of aquatic flora or fauna”. EPA concludes that “Florida’s narrative nutrient criterion alone is not sufficient to …meet the requirements of the CWA [Clean Water Act]”.
“Our state Department of Environmental Protection is flat out losing the battle to save Florida’s waters,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney. “This ‘narrative criterion’ is essentially a smell test – which itself does not pass a smell test.”
The EPA letter states that it “expects to propose numeric nutrient criteria for lakes and flowing waters within 12 months, and for estuaries and coastal waters, within 24 months” – a timeline which puts these tasks squarely in the lap of the incoming Obama administration. PEER points to mounting pressure on EPA to act coming from multiple sources, including –
- A long series of adverse federal court rulings that EPA has been derelict in protecting Florida’s water quality, particularly as it affects the Everglades. The agency is under court order to shape up the state pollution program, even as more suits are being filed against it;
- Florida DEP has tried to cook the books by firing its key lab manager who was finding pollution readings that were off the chart. That lab manager, Tom White, is represented by PEER in a whistleblower lawsuit nearing trail. In the determination letter, EPA notes that DEP has spent “over $20 million in collecting and analyzing data” but has yet to develop numeric standards; and
- DEP has little idea of how much of which pollutant is being discharged to state waters. In response to a records request, the agency told PEER that it “would have to develop a new [computer] program” to be able to track how many permits had been issued or renewed.
The announcement came in a joint press release, entitled “EPA and Florida DEP Work Together to Restore Florida’s Surface Water”, which seeks to portray the federal intervention as a cooperative venture. It was issued on January 16th, the last full working day of the Bush administration.
“This press announcement is an ardent attempt to put a lot of lipstick on a very big pig,” Phillips added. “When the Bush EPA is forced to step in is a sign that things are really bad.”