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FLOW addresses water pollution standards

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By Mark Scohier

More than 50 people showed up recently to take part in a discussion at a Lake City meeting dealing with new water rules aimed at keeping Florida’s water clean, though some in attendance had doubts about how effective the rules ultimately will be.

 “It is one of our biggest challenges,” said Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Drew Bartlett at the meeting, held by Florida Leaders Organized for Water (FLOW). “Essentially, what we are doing is setting water quality standards for our water bodies.”

Shortly before the end of the year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed to FDEP’s plan determining numeric nutrient criteria, numbers that place limits on the amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous allowed in certain water bodies. The pollutants cause algal blooms, which in many parts of the state are having drastic impacts on the environment, tourism and the health and well-being of people. 

The decision ended one part of a years-long legal battle between government agencies and environmentalists, the latter of whom being frustrated at government inaction.

Environmentalists also said the previous rules, which were never enforced, were too subjective and didn’t address Florida’s various types of water bodies.

Alisa Coe, an attorney with Earth Justice, the environmental law firm who represented the environmentalist groups in the lawsuit, was, like Bartlett, also a speaker at Monday night’s meeting.

“We said you need a number … clear pollution limits.” The old “narrative” standard wasn’t effective, she said. “By the time you knew there was a problem, you were already seeing huge algae outbreaks.”

The EPA agreed, in 2009 requiring stricter standards than FDEP. The state, along with various industry lobbyists, said new standards would be too expensive to implement. The EPA eventually caved in a bit, giving Florida the ability to set its own standards, though only with EPA approval.

In 2011, Bartlett said, FDEP moved to come to a resolution, coming up with numeric standards for rivers, streams, lakes, springs and some estuaries in South Florida. The EPA approved, Bartlett said, though the federal government is also in the process of proposing new criteria for streams and estuaries.

“So, that’s where we are right now,” he said. Nothing has taken effect.

Newspaper articles would have the public believe that the state’s criteria are not as stringent as the EPA’s, “but that’s not the case,” he said. “At the end of the day, we have a lot of nutrient criteria being set for our water bodies.”

“The new rule is very complex,” Coe said, and is “largely written by polluters” and contains a series of “escape hatches, rather than real limits.” It doesn’t have strict number limits, it has thresholds, she said. “Most streams and rivers are not covered.”

And the plan comes with a poison pill, she said. “We call it the get-out-of-jail-free card,” where the EPA has to agree not to protect some things or the rule gets killed. The federal government didn’t agree to the get-out-of-jail-free card, she said, and it is now in litigation. “We’re gonna’ keep fighting.”

Cleaning up pollution is expensive, she said, but not as expensive as what pollution winds up costing society in the end.

Mary Lou Hildreth, Keystone heights mayor and FLOW board member, on the topic of what pollution costs, brought up the issue of non-point source pollution, which, like fertilizer running off of a farmer’s field, is harder to control because it’s not easy to point out. She said it was surprising to know a city can be forced to pay for something that happens upstream.

Coe said the Clean Water Act, the law that EPA used to prompt states to come up with water pollution standards, only covers point source pollution, such as what can be attributed to things like tainted water being piped into a river. Contaminants from fertilizers, animal wastes and septic tanks are harder to pinpoint, though, she added, technology for determining the specific sources of such pollution may not be too far off in the future.

Audience member Steve Baker asked who would be in charge of enforcing pollution standards.

“Theoretically,” Coe said, “DEP should be enforcing this stuff.” She added that the agency could already be enforcing standards for certain water bodies under the “current regime.”

Bartlett said enforcement was the crux of the issue. Certain numeric standards, such as the .35 Total Maximum Daily Load of nutrient pollution set for the Santa Fe River, were already on the books. But not all pollution comes from sources that are regulated, he said, suggesting it may be hard to enforce standards in some areas.

Audience member and Chiefland resident Annette Long expressed concern about the length of time standards would take to be implemented. She said wells in her neighborhood have been known to far exceed safe levels of contaminants since 1985. “That’s 27 years! If it’s settled, how long will it take?”

Unfortunately, Coe said, it’s taking a long time. “If there was less resistance by the state, I think it could go faster.”

Bartlett said coming up with numbers was one issue, but trying to achieve those standards, especially in an area where pollution is mostly attributed to non-point sources, is difficult.

Lucinda Merritt, FLOW’s administrative secretary, asked what Florida’s biggest obstacle to clean water is.

“I guess, from my perspective, it would be the politics,” Coe said, explaining that she’s spent a lot of time fighting “very powerful opponents” in court.

Bartlett said, “The means of getting there is the biggest challenge.” Funds are limited, he said, and it’s hard to get society to want to change.

An audience member sitting up front asked Bartlett if there were any pristine springs left in Florida. Bartlett said that there were still a few that have not been harmed.

“Can you name a few?” the man asked.

“Aucilla, St. Marks …. “  were the only unharmed springs named.

Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson, of Our Santa Fe River, asked, in reference to the pollution standards already set for the Santa Fe River, “When can implementation happen without any more studies?”

Bartlett said he was trying to redirect funds toward change in the Santa Fe Basin, rather than performing more studies.

“I really hope that’s true,” Coe said, stating that FDEP’s rule calls for more studies. “It needs to start now.”