EPA Should Keep Oversight of Florida Drinking Water
State Potable Water Program Is a Shambles and Getting Significantly Worse
Tallahassee — Florida’s recent track record gives ample reason why federal oversight is still needed to ensure safe drinking water in the Sunshine State, according to formal comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA is poised to act on a request for greater autonomy from Florida even as the state is today ignoring hundreds of drinking water violations, many involving unsafe levels of contamination.
“If EPA wants to prevent another public health calamity like Flint, Michigan, it needs to supervise Florida’s safe drinking water program,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) enforcement attorney. “During the past five years, the Florida DEP has all but fully dismantled the enforcement arm of its potable water program.”
In a Federal Register notice filed on July 28, 2016, the EPA announced its preliminary consent to accept a request by the State of Florida filed in 2013 seeking greater administrative authority over implementation of federal Safe Drinking Water Act requirements. EPA has asked for public comment, running through next Monday, August 29th, before it finalizes its decision.
In comments filed today, PEER argues that such a move by EPA would be irresponsible because, among other issues –
- More than one in eight public water systems in Florida is afflicted with pollution-related violations, many involving unsafe fecal or chemical contamination. Yet despite hundreds of recent drinking water violations, Florida enforcement efforts have shrunk to almost undetectable levels;
- The DEP is proposing to increase the level of carcinogens, such as benzene (from 1.18 ppb [parts per billion] to 2 ppb – the federal standard is 1.14 ppb), allowed in Florida’s surface waters. EPA has yet to rule on whether to allow this shift that will up the odds for organic and inorganic compounds making their way into Florida’s potable water supply; and
- Florida’s Environmental Regulation Commission has only business representatives because Florida’s Governor has failed to fill the two environmental seats on the 7-member body.
PEER points to the handling of Boca Raton’s drinking water breakdowns as a case study for why the DEP needs more federal oversight. In spite of a documented series of serious problems affecting the City’s drinking water, including illegal discharges of contaminants into storm drains, illegal cross-connections into tap water, continued drops in water pressure and the submission of false reports involving reclaimed water, the DEP took no formal enforcement action on any of them. Consequently, Florida PEER petitioned the EPA to intervene on the public’s behalf, yet the EPA also ignored the problem. The only agency that even attempted to hold the City accountable was the Palm Beach County Department of Health.
“The lack of EPA involvement has facilitated the deterioration of drinking water security in Florida to alarming levels,” added Phillips, reiterating that the federal agency has failed to exercise its concurrent jurisdiction on these matters. “Further federal disinvestment will put the public’s health and our environment at even greater risk.”