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Nancy Smith

Finally, EPA Does the Right Thing for Florida

November 6, 2011 - 6:00pm

Groups like Earthjustice and Sierra Club didn't like it, but last week the Environmental Protection Agency finally listened, did the right thing and approved a state alternative to the EPA's draconian water pollution regulations proposed for Florida.

The alternative proposal now moves to the Legislature and, if approved, the EPA's maligned numeric nutrient criteria rule will likely become history. That's because the EPA will probably grant it final approval.

Not everybody wants the state involved. Believe it or not, some people prefer seeing Florida under the federal government's thumb.

Besides environmentalists, the St. Petersburg Times, for instance.

In a Nov. 4 editorial, the Times disapprovingly called the action "a testament to politics winning out over science."

But I don't see it that way. What I see is reality winning out over economic disaster.

Let's have a look at some of the facts in this case.

In 2008 Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of five environmental groups: Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. John's Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club. These groups claimed that, in Florida anyway, the EPA hasnt enforced its own standards in the Clean Water Act.

To settle the suit, the agency entered into a legally binding agreement with these groups, working out a plan for stricter limits for phosphorus and nitrogen in Floridas waterways. Trouble is, the limits set and the timeline to reach them had little scientific foundation. Even today, the EPA cant justify them.

The EPA, incidentally, isn't enforcing those standards in any of the other 49 states. Only in Florida.

What's more, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the University of Florida studied the EPAs plan. They claim it could cost Florida up to $1.6 billion a year never mind the 14,500 jobs it could destroy. A private study actually pegged the costs astronomically higher -- anywhere from $1 billion to $8.4 billion annually.

Even the Times' PolitiFact Florida of March 1, 2011, acknowledged as "mostly true" that EPA's numeric nutrient criteria rules would force the state to make drainage canals every bit as clean as pristine Florida river systems. Imagine the cost.

What the Times wants to see amounts to an unfunded mandate. This is all money that will have to be collected from taxpayers or diverted from more useful purposes.

Florida would have to find that money, not the federal government.

A survey of nine utilities last summer estimated that, in order to pay for the needed municipal improvements, a households sewer rates would jump $62 a month, or more than $700 annually.

Even for the EPA, the most enthusiastic supporter of unfunded mandates among hundreds of intrusive federal agencies out there, the numeric nutrient criteria regulations are spectacularly over the top.

The Times puts its faith in the federal Environmental Protection Agency, an agency that is autonomous, an agency that isnt elected and can't be voted back to oblivion. It truly is the bully on the block, the kid who calls the shots for the rest of the neighborhood.

Certainly it is the essence of a national government to make laws that inconvenience someone, somewhere, and inconvenience almost always costs money. That's completely understandable. But the EPA's hit on Florida went above and beyond inconvenience and the kind of pricetag you can excuse away.

The EPA -- entering into a "deal" as it did, to settle a lawsuit in the middle of a recession -- could have done irreparable harm to Florida.

With 10.6 percent unemployment and job recovery uncertain, the EPA rule threatened so many sectors of Florida's economy.

Does Florida need clean water? Of course it does. But it also needs to get there with sound science, on a budget that respects the worst recession in 80 years, administered by an agency close to home -- not an autonomous federal behemoth.

As Florida Chamber of Commerce Policy Director Leticia Adams said, No one knows Floridas water better than Floridians, and allowing Floridas DEP to establish nutrient criteria limits is the right thing to do.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.
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