EPA Kisses off Florida’s Wetlands
Developer Sway in EPA Breeds Algal Blooms and Aquifer Contamination
Washington, DC — Overruling its own specialists, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is opening the door to a new wave of mega-developments that will sharply erode Florida’s already declining water quality, according to agency documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In the arrangement, EPA has agreed to overlook warnings of more toxic algae outbreaks, growing saltwater intrusion and spreading contamination of the state’s fragile groundwater.
In a key concession, EPA has accepted a development model that has been criticized for assuming that wetlands are a source of pollution – pollution that can be cured by development. Final approval was delayed in 2003 by the public resignation of EPA scientist Bruce Boler in protest. This led to further review of the model, called the Harper model, after its author Harvey Harper.
Although EPA specialists continue to have grave reservations, EPA Southeast Regional Administrator Jimmy Palmer ordered them to stand aside. EPA’s final evaluation was “sanitized” in the words of one staff member but even the final, censored technical evaluation raises large red flags:
“EPA Region 4 cannot verify the conclusions of the new statewide model….The approach leaves wide room for user interpretation with minimal references for such interpretation. This could result in inaccurate analyses, poor project designs that do not achieve pollutant removal targets and ultimately, degraded water quality.”
“If this is an endorsement what does EPA’s disapproval look like?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that in a slew of cases EPA has dropped objections to destruction of large tracts of shrinking wetlands, which are protected by law. “EPA has lost the ability to say no, no matter how smelly the deal.”
Central to Florida’s approach for green-lighting development is using larger and deeper artificial ponds to contain polluted storm-water runoff from paved areas. Both state and federal research, however, indicate this method falls well short of meeting minimal water quality standards. In addition, experts predict the holding ponds will be prime breeding grounds for toxic algal blooms that increasingly plague state waters.
Proliferation of the ponds also raises risks of saltwater intrusion, a growing threat aggravated by Florida’s recent drought. Moreover, deep ponds which require perpetual maintenance may taint fresh water aquifers that, in many parts of the state, are very near the surface.
At the same time, Palmer has closed EPA’s Southwest Florida office, removed its top expert from Everglades restoration work and repeatedly intervened for developers. He even testified against EPA for a developer in a criminal case. In one controversial case, for example, Palmer e-mailed his staff that the lawyer/lobbyist for the project “is a friend of mine who is connected into some VERY high places.”
“For all intents and purposes, EPA has ceased to exist in Florida,” Ruch added.