Court ruling on EPA water rules has both sides declaring a victory

Feb 20, 2012

A federal judge has ruled that specific limits on sewage and fertilizer contamination in state waters must go into effect in three weeks. As Sascha Cordner Reports, even though the judge invalidated the federal requirements in some water bodies, both sides in the ongoing battle over Florida’s water pollution standards are declaring some kind of victory…

David Guest is an attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental group that filed a Clean Water Act federal lawsuit a few years ago on behalf of other environmental groups seeking limits on the pollutants in Florida’s water bodies.

“This is an important milestone in the protection of Florida’s waters.”

He’s happy with a U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle’s ruling on Saturday that would require the immediate enforcement of pollution limits on lakes and springs by March 6th. Environmental groups are calling it limits on “sewage, manure, and fertilizer contamination” for Florida’s freshwaters.

The pollutants feed algae blooms on lakes and streams. The blooms can cause health problems and can also be fatal to wildlife.

“So, this really means that we have turned the corner in getting control of the slime outbreaks, the huge toxic algae outbreaks that have plagued the state of Florida increasingly across recent years. It will help immensely in reducing red tide outbreaks that have plagued the coastal areas.”

Environmental groups have been long-time supporters of the Environmental Protection Agency’s federal water standards, calling it more stringent than the state’s new rules. But, in his 86-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle upheld the lakes and spring standards that is close to Florida’s new numeric nutrient criteria, but says the federal rules for streams and rivers are invalid.

Guest called that just “a technical defect” in the EPA’s rule:

“It found a couple of technical defects in this very long and complicated rule. It gave the EPA a couple of months to correct it. So, that process will be underway and that’s something that I hope interested parties will be working to solve.”

The judge ruled the limits on streams and rivers were “arbitrary and capricious,” and told the EPA that they had until May 21st to come up with new limits.

That had the applause of utility and industry groups, which battled environmental groups for years on the numeric nutrient standard. They claim the state of Florida knows how best to manage its own waters, and don’t need the federal standards.

“I think the fact that it’s so complicated is the reason EPA lost on the streams issue. It’s extraordinarily difficult to come up with standards that really prevent the harm, and it’s clear that they weren’t able to do so. I mean their springs criteria and their lakes criteria passed the judicial review, but their streams where’s it’s most difficult to set these standards, they fell short.”

The attorney that represents the wastewater utility groups, David Childs, says the ruling is significant for the groups that he represents because the court invalidated the EPA’s numeric nutrient criteria rules for Florida’s streams.

“EPA had established streams criteria that limited nutrient concentration in Florida’s rivers and streams  to levels that were actually lower than that required to prevent really harmful imbalances to flora and fauna. You could say that the EPA criteria were divorced from the reality of Florida’s streams and would have led to numerous water bodies in the state being declared impaired for nutrients, even though there’s no nutrient problems in the water bodies.”

Childs says EPA’s lakes and springs criteria is expected to go into effect in March 6th, unless EPA approves the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s standards for those same waters OR gets leave from the court to extend the effective date of those standards to June as EPA has indicated they have wanted to do.

The state recently adopted water quality rules that replace the federal ones. But, it’s a standard that many environmental groups call weak, and has prompted another legal challenge. A hearing is scheduled to begin February 27th on that issue.

If a judge rules in favor of the environmental groups, the bill that Governor Rick Scott recently signed into law, would be null and void, and any change to the proposed water quality rules would go to the Legislature for approval. That bill, House Bill 7051, allowed the proposed water quality rules to bypass the Legislature’s approval.