EPA adopts water pollution rules for Florida

The pollution rules adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency combine state and federal rules and follow a court battle with environmental groups.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will adopt a combination of state and federal water pollution rules for Florida after a lengthy court fight with environmental groups that favored the federal version, agency officials said late Friday.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson initially filed a brief notice in federal court in Tallahassee saying she had taken all actions required by a consent decree that the agency had entered with the environmental groups. They had accused the agency of failing to follow its own regulations by not requiring Florida to adopt more stringent standards for such nutrients as nitrogen and phosphorus.

But on Friday evening, the agency issued a news release saying it had also approved the state rules for some waterways. Earthjustice lawyer David Guest, who represents the environmental groups, said he was pleased because the federal rule will apply to about 82,000 of 100,000 miles of waterways and the state rule will cover the remaining 18,000. EPA regional water protection director Jim Giattina said the area covered by the federal rule might be smaller.

"We're approving Florida's rules and we're proposing numbers that will fill the gap that may exist in Florida's rules," Giattina said. He said further changes may be made after additional discussions with the state.

The environmental groups opposed the state's approach as being too weak to stop pollution that's being blamed for algae blooms, which are clogging Florida waterways. But Guest said he's still happy with the outcome.

"This is the reddest letter day of them all," Guest said.

Opponents argued the federal rules would be too expensive to implement and favored the state's approach.

"Our diverse coalition of agriculture, employers, local government, utilities and others supports clean water and believes Florida knows what's best for Florida," spokesman Ryan Banfill wrote in an email. "That's why the coalition has always supported Florida-specific standards developed by Florida scientists and proposed by the state DEP as a more cost effective way to promote water quality in our state."

Both proposals set numerical limits on nutrients that come from such sources as fertilizer, animal waste and, sewage effluent, which feed the toxic, slimy algae blooms. They can kill fish and make people sick.

EPA officials said they have determined that the state's new method of setting those limits in lakes, springs, steams and estuaries is technically and scientifically sound and more effective than the Florida's existing method.

Florida, like most states, currently has only vague standards. Putting numerical limits on how much pollution is allowed is expected to strengthen enforcement.

The numerical limits in the state's rules, except for South Florida, are virtually identical to the federal proposal, EPA officials said.

The agency plans to seek public comment on the state rules and has scheduled a public information session for Jan. 17-18 in Tampa and web-based public hearings for Jan. 22-24.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle had pushed back the deadline for action several times since the consent decree was signed three years ago, but when he ordered a six-month extension in June, he said it would be the last delay.

The June order reset the deadline for Friday. EPA last week asked for another delay of 120 days to continue talks with state officials on their alternative proposal, but Jackson filed her notice after Hinkle took no action on the latest request for more time.

The groups that sued the EPA included Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club.