Both sides in the fight over U.S. EPA's effort to impose tough new water quality standards in Florida's fresh water bodies lobbied aggressively in these final weeks before Sunday, the agency's deadline to sign the new regulation.
There was no sign today that deadline would change, despite the outcry from Florida delegates, state officials and industry groups that the cost to comply with the federally mandated pollution limits would suffocate taxpayers, farmers and businesses in a state already hard-hit by the recession.
Florida's current environmental regulations currently include narrative water quality standards that have failed to stop algae blooms and red tides that have turned rivers green, triggered massive fish kills and caused respiratory problems.
Environmentalists sued EPA in 2008 for not enforcing the Clean Water Act in the state. Under the settlement, EPA must replace the state's narrative rules with specific, numeric criteria as to how much phosphorus and nitrogen pollution -- byproducts of fertilizer and sewage treatment that trigger the noxious algae blooms -- can be allowed to enter each of the state's lakes, rivers, streams and springs.
But exactly how much it will cost to upgrade sewage treatment plants and improve farming and industry practices to comply with the new rules has dominated the debate over whether to move forward as planned.
State officials and environmental groups have lobbied for and against the new rules in recent, separate meetings with White House officials on Oct. 28 and Nov. 8, respectively, to defend their opposing cost estimates. Even today, Florida's newly elected congressional delegates wrote EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson urging additional study and asking her to further delay the new regulation, which the agency already postponed one month from its original deadline of Oct. 15 so the more than 22,000 public comments could be reviewed.
"We are concerned that the EPA's unprecedented numeric criteria rulemaking will impose substantial regulatory and economic consequences on Floridians," said the letter signed by Gov.-elect Rick Scott (R); Reps.-elect Richard Nugent (R), David Rivera (R), Dennis Ross (R), Steve Southerland (R) and Daniel Webster (R); and Attorney General-elect Pam Bondi (R).
Cost estimates remain far apart. An industry-commissioned study estimates the price of new wastewater treatment pollution controls at $4.2 billion to $6.7 billion all together, or between $430 million and $620 million annually. That translates into an additional $570 to $990 per year on the average homeowner's sewer bill, according to the study.
Opponents say upgrading city stormwater treatment facilities would could cost far more -- perhaps as much as $17 billion. An earlier study touted by opponents of the rules estimated the total cost to Florida could top $50 billion.
Environmental groups call those gross overestimates. Earthjustice attorney David Guest points to a preliminary cost analysis that EPA published in January 2010 that estimated a $4.7 million to $10.1 million annual price tag to install the necessary pollution controls. He called the industry figures a "plain misrepresentation calculated to generate hysteria."
"To me, this is a little like saying that if we're going to drive across the U.S., rather than drive my Prius, I'm going to rent a private 747," Guest said.
Guest says overestimates are based on the false assumption that most wastewater would have to be treated with expensive drinking water filtration technology and that cities would be expected to bulldoze swaths of developed areas to build stormwater-retention ponds and artificial, pollution-cleaning marshes -- measures that would be deemed unreasonable under the Clean Water Act.
But David Childs, an attorney for the Florida Water Environment Association Utility Council, said it is unfair to criticize projections by assuming that cities and wastewater operations would receive the variances necessary to achieve pollution controls less than those required under the proposed regulation
"To say it's not going to cost much because you can, perhaps, get an exception to the rule really raises a fundamental question, I believe, about how reasonable it is to measure economic impact based on extensive and essentially limitless exceptions to the standards," he said. "There's no guarantee you're going to be exempted."