The U.S. District Court approved a consent decree this week that will clean up polluted lakes, streams and rivers throughout Florida. The agreement between the federal Environmental Protection Agency and three Florida conservation organizations will affect more than 700 waterbodies including Lake Okeechobee. Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, Save our Creeks and the Environmental Coalition of Southwest Florida, sued EPA under the Clean Water Act for its failure to step in when the required pollution limits were not set by the State of Florida. The settlement sets a schedule for EPA to issue pollution limits beginning this year, unless the state goes forward in the meantime.
"Originally, the declining health of Lake Okeechobee sent us to court," said Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation, "Okeechobee will get pollution limits this year, but the order will apply to nearly 700 waterbodies in Florida over the next 12 years."
The consent decree orders the EPA to set pollution limits within 12 years for 700 polluted water segments. The limits, known as total maximum daily loads ("TMDLs"), identify how much of a pollutant that a water body can handle from all sources on a daily basis. The consent decree opens the door to controlling what can go into waterways from stormwater runoff to industrial facilities and sewage plants.
"Our lawsuit is based on a twenty year-old law that was ignored by the EPA until recently but is now being enforced around the nation by the public," said David Guest, an attorney with Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which represents the conservation groups. "The Clean Water Act says the people of Florida are entitled to waters that are fishable and swimmable. This court order will make that clean-up process happen," Guest said.
"Cleaning up our waterways will require the participation of cities, industry and agriculture working together to protect the children, fish, wildlife and clean drinking water in Florida," said Becky Ayech, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.
Across the nation, environmental groups have started filing lawsuits seeking enforcement of a "long-neglected" provision of the 1972 Clean Water Act that requires states to create lists of their polluted water bodies and plans for cleaning them up. Those plans include overall pollution loads for water bodies. These loads must be considered in individual permitting decisions and the regulating of non-permitted sources, such as farm runoff, one of the major remaining threats to water bodies. The consent decree in Florida is the fourth in an emerging pattern in Gulf Coast states: federal courts have also ordered TMDLs in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi.
Until recently, most states have concentrated on industrial pollution sources. Lawsuits have been filed against over 30 states seeking enforcement of the provision, which addresses both point and nonpoint source pollution. Many have been settled, with agreements similar to the one announced in Florida this week. The decrees instruct the US EPA to begin requiring the states to get their programs up and running. In cases where a state does not do its job, the EPA will step in and set pollution limits.