In a case with national implications, a Florida federal judge today failed to grant an extension sought by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the EPA has agreed to immediately propose enforceable, numeric limits to curb the water pollution that causes toxic algae outbreaks, taints drinking water, kills wildlife and threatens public health in Florida.
Lesley Gamble paddles through green slime outbreak on the Santa Fe River on May 22, 2012. (John Moran.)
View photo slideshow of algae outbreaks.
After years of court battles and foot-dragging, the federal agency has agreed to establish numeric pollution limits for some 100,000 miles of Florida waterways and 4,000 square miles of estuaries. Standards for Florida’s lakes and springs have already been set.
“Slime outbreaks and Red Tides are a pestilence on the state, contaminating water, killing fish, destroying property values and chasing off tourists. Now the EPA has to stop dragging its feet and deal with it,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest. “We fought every polluting industry in Florida for four years to get to this result.”
Currently, Florida and most other states have only vague standards regulating contamination from the inadequately treated sewage, manure and fertilizer that runs off into lakes and streams. Because Florida is so hot and so flat, these contaminants fuel massive slime outbreaks and recurrent Red Tide.
“EPA’s response here will set the standard for the nation. What we’ve lacked is a set of quantifiable numbers that are basically a speed limit sign to make the law clear and enforceable,” Guest said. “The EPA will now start painting the numbers on that speed limit sign. It will be abundantly clear what the rules are.”
The EPA got several court-granted delays in the case, and was seeking another, which U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle today failed to grant.
UPDATE: In a last-minute decision Friday, the EPA also approved a set of state pollution limits developed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection which will cover a fraction of the waters in the state—about 15 percent. The other 85 percent of the state’s waters will be subject to the numeric federal standards.
Now, using extensive data it has been collecting and analyzing in concert with Florida Department of Environmental Protection scientists, the EPA will impose numeric limits on the allowable amount of phosphorus and nitrogen—so called “nutrient” pollution—in the state’s waterways.
The EPA began working to set pollution limits for Florida in 2009—part of a settlement in a 2008 Clean Water Act suit filed by Earthjustice in the Northern District of Florida on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. John’s Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club. The suit challenged the decade-long delay by the state and federal governments in setting limits for the pollution.
“The state of Florida has spent the past 14 years asking for more time to develop protective limits on sewage, manure and fertilizer pollution. Today, the time is up,” said Frank Jackalone, Florida Staff Director for the Sierra Club. “EPA has agreed to take immediate action to finally bring the Clean Water Act to Florida with strong rules that will clean up our slime-fouled springs, rivers, lakes and beaches.”
The public supports the EPA pollution limits. In response to a call for action, more than 40,000 citizens have written the White House this year, urging the Obama Administration to stand firm on imposing effective federal standards for Florida waters.
“We are pleased that Floridians do not have to wait any longer to receive the Clean Water Act protections they deserve,” said Andrew McElwaine, President of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “We can now move forward toward effective pollution limits which truly protect public health, our economy and our environment.”
Becky Ayech, of the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, said EPA pollution limits are especially welcome in her part of the state, which started this year’s tourist season with a nasty red tide outbreak and dead fish on the beaches.
“This slime shut down a drinking water plant for 30,000 people. That’s not right. We can prevent this mess, and we ought to be preventing it,” Ayech said. “Not only is it disgusting, but it kills our economy when tourists show up and they see dead fish, stinking algae, and they can’t swim or fish or even ride in a boat without getting stinging eyes and breathing problems.”
“The St. John’s River was covered with a 100-mile long green slime toxic algae outbreak and fish kill in 2010. We had more green slime in 2011. It has been heartbreaking to hear health officials warning us not to boat or swim in the water. We are really hoping that the EPA standards will start us on the road to preventing this so we can enjoy our river,” said St John’s Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman.
“We’ve waited long enough to get moving on these cleanup standards,” said Florida Wildlife Federation President Manley Fuller. “A new, positive chapter starts today.”
Read the notice of compliance.