Environmentalists, industrial water users and bureaucrats on Wednesday continued trying to determine how Florida might be able to police its own water cleanliness to avert a federal takeover of water quality in the state.
For hours, Department of Environmental Protection staffers slogged through the details of what they hope will be a slate of water standards for Florida lakes, rivers, springs and other freshwater bodies acceptable to federal officials who have established a set of criteria of their own that many business groups in the state say would be too pricey.
The discussion came, though, as a federal appellate court in Atlanta threw out an appeal filed by water management officials and backed by industry groups that challenged a 2009 consent decree entered into by the federal Environmental Protection Agency that set out numerical limits for nutrients going into the state's waterways.
In its ruling, the appellate court upheld the consent order that set up specific federal pollution standards, known as "numeric standards," in place of state standards that were more flexible and subjective.
Those federal standards are on hold, however, as federal officials have agreed to allow Florida officials to draft new state rules to better meet what the federal government says the state must do, generally, to meet clean-water laws.
State officials say they hope to use information gleaned from meetings like the one Wednesday at DEP headquarters in Tallahassee to fine-tune a slate of proposed regulations that is scheduled to be presented to the Environmental Regulatory Commission in November for its consideration and a possible vote in January.
Lawmakers would then take up the issue in January when they return to begin the 2012 session.
"With this kind of rule-making and the importance of it, it's important to get legislative approval," said Drew Bartlett, director of DEP's division of environmental assessment and restoration.
If lawmakers fail to act, the EPA could return in March to its set of rules for state waters, but federal officials have indicated they would be willing to extend that deadline if progress is being made on the state's efforts. The 11th Circuit of Court of Appeals ruling Wednesday, however, keeps those regulations on the table as an option.
"If they are presented something and the Legislature hasn't acted, the EPA still has a hammer to hold over the state," said Colleen Castille, former DEP secretary who now represents a number of business clients with water interests. "It all depends how close we are."
The polluters keep trying to use our public waters as their private sewers, but we intend to keep fighting them. They have to take responsibility for their mess, said David Guest, an attorney for Earthjustice, which filed the suit leading to the consent decree. Our economy depends on tourism, and nobody wants to come to Florida to look at dead fish and slime-covered water.
A spokeswoman for the EPA in Atlanta directed calls to the Department of Justice, which did not immediately return phone messages left Wednesday.