Tallahassee — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ignored its own scientists and quality control procedures in formulating proposed numeric standards to regulate nutrient levels in Florida waters, according to testimony submitted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, if adopted, the EPA standards will classify waters that are impaired as healthy.
Forced by successful environmental lawsuits citing its failure to enforce the federal Clean Water Act in Florida, EPA announced in the waning days of the Bush administration that it would act to set “numeric” pollution standards for nutrients, such as phosphorus, to replace subjective “narrative criteria” used by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Even under the state’s current lax methods, one-third of all Florida lakes, one-quarter of its estuaries and one-sixth of its rivers are officially classified as “impaired” by pollution – proportions likely to go much higher under rigorous numeric standards. An “impaired” designation triggers legal requirements for pollution discharge reductions and other measures to bring the water-body back to a healthy, functioning (swimmable and fishable) condition.
Rather than set rigorous, science-based numeric criteria, PEER has charged EPA officials in its Atlanta regional office with overriding the agency’s technical experts and proposing standards that are so weak they would, in essence, legitimize unreasonably high pollution levels as protective of water quality. Among improprieties cited by PEER are that EPA –
- Ignored its own guidelines for how to set such ecological standards;
- Bypassed peer review of the proposed standards, instead developing standards in closed door meetings with state officials; and
- Eschewed applying a safety factor that EPA normally uses to set water quality criteria so as to provide water-bodies with breathing room if they are absorbing pollution right up to the limits.
“These standards are like the phony exams given to basketball players with questions like how much is a three-point basket worth,” stated PEER Florida Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP water enforcement attorney, noting that the Obama administration has yet to select an EPA Regional Administrator for the southeastern states, including Florida. “Here we have the same holdover EPA managers who presided over deteriorating Florida water quality committing professional malpractice to cover their past failures.”
Florida DEP, which put out a joint press release with EPA in 2009 to herald this effort, has since changed its public posture. It has joined industry groups and other current and former state officials who have protested proposed EPA standards as unnecessary and expensive.
“Opponents are shedding crocodile tears, knowing that if they bawl loudly enough the politics will water down any changes to the point where they are meaningless,” Phillips added. “PEER supports numeric criteria provided that they are strict enough to actually protect Florida’s waters.”