TALLAHASEE (AP) — Both sides in a dispute over water pollution rules are claiming victory from a federal court ruling that ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to implement the new regulations for Florida’s lakes and springs by March 6 but not for rivers and streams.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection, meanwhile, on Tuesday submitted a pair of proposed state rules covering both types of inland waters to the EPA. State officials want the federal agency to adopt their rules instead.
Business, agriculture and utility interests favor the state rules, contending the federal versions would be too expensive to implement.
Environmental groups support the EPA, saying the state’s proposal would be too weak to curtail toxic algae blooms that are choking many Florida waters, killing fish and causing breathing problems and skin rashes for humans.
Both sets of rules would set numeric limits for nitrogen and phosphorus contained in such pollutants as sewage, fertilizer and animal waste that feed the algae, but they differ in some key details. Either would replace existing state rules that use words to describe what’s considered pollution instead of setting numeric limits on the nutrients.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle upheld the federal rules on Saturday but gave EPA until
May 21 to revise the river and streams provision because he found it to be arbitrary and capricious.
David Guest, an Earthjustice lawyer who represents the environmental groups, called that a “technical defect.”
“How you can tell who won or lost is by who appeals and we’re not going to appeal,” Guest said.
He noted Hinkle rejected arguments that numeric nutrient limits aren’t needed.
“That was a categorical
defeat for our opponents,” Guest said.
David Childs, a lawyer for a coalition that opposed the rules, said his clients have not yet made a decision on appealing.
Attorney General Pam Bondi called the decision “a major victory for the state because the bulk of the compliance costs associated with EPA’s numeric nutrient criteria would have stemmed from the stream rule.” Her office, though, has not yet decided whether to appeal.
Davina Marraccini declined comment, saying the agency was still reviewing the ruling.
Childs said the state and federal rules are nearly identical for lakes and springs while the state’s version “should address the very reasons that the EPA rules were invalidated. That’s where the action is so to speak.”
Guest said his clients, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southeast Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club, would ask Hinkle to reject the state’s numeric rules if the EPA should adopt them instead of its own version. He said the state rules would require a needless study, which could take years, to determine if the nutrients actually are causing biological harm before any action could be taken.
“We already know what to do: stop the sewage, stop the fertilizer, stop and animal manure, and do it now,” Guest said.
EPA drafted the rules to settle a lawsuit by the environmental groups. The agency did not have an immediate comment on the court ruling Tuesday.
The environmental groups also have filed an administrative law challenge to the state rules. A hearing is set to begin in that case on Monday.