WATER POLLUTION:

Industry to Congress -- EPA fight with Fla. coming to a state near you

A coalition of national industry associations is warning Congress that U.S. EPA's move to impose tougher water pollution limits in Florida could become a model for similar actions in other states and ultimately cost taxpayers and businesses billions of dollars at questionable environmental benefit.

EPA immediately fired back, rejecting the claim and noting that the numeric limits on nutrient pollution the agency imposed on Florida last year were required under a settlement agreement EPA struck with environmental groups.

The groups had filed suit alleging that federal regulators stood idly by for years as the state continuously failed to enforce the Clean Water Act, allowing phosphorus and nitrogen -- components of fertilizer and byproducts of sewage and wastewater treatment -- to saturate waterways, triggering soupy algae blooms that killed fish and sucked oxygen out of the water.

"While States are free to control nutrient pollution, and many are starting to, EPA has no plans to establish numeric nutrient criteria in any other states," EPA said in a statement yesterday responding to the industry letter. "The establishment of numeric limits of nutrient pollution in Florida was due to specific legal challenges about the State of Florida's implementation of the Clean Water Act."

Industries sounded the alarm in a letter yesterday to all members of House and Senate. It was the latest and most widely distributed entreaty yet from agriculture, fertilizer, chemical, homebuilder and manufacturing interests -- 67 groups altogether -- that have been urging members of Congress to stop EPA from implementing and enforcing the new water pollution rules in Florida.

"Even though we represent national organizations that are not based in Florida, we are profoundly concerned with EPA's actions in Florida," the letter states. "It is apparent that EPA's development of NNC (numeric nutrient criteria) in Florida establishes a template for how EPA will structure and impose similar nutrient requirements nationwide."

The letter goes on to say that EPA is already "taking steps" to impose similar limits in six New England states and others in the Mississippi River watershed. That vast, farm-heavy watershed covers 41 percent of the continental United States and is known as a heavy contributor of nutrient pollution to the Gulf of Mexico, triggering the annual formation of a "dead zone" roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts.

Susan Bodine, an attorney with the Agriculture Nutrient Policy Council, a group of farm and fertilizer concerns, pointed to several recent actions: President Obama's 2012 budget request, a recent contract award and comments from EPA's New England office that a regional water pollution commission read as "not supportive" of non-numeric approaches, according to a letter that group sent the agency in January.

The president's budget request included $6.6 million to address excessive nutrient loadings in the Gulf of Mexico that contribute to the dead zone, implement strategies to reduce nutrient pollution from "non-point sources" such as fertilized crops runoff and coordinate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Geological Survey to implement sustainable farm practices and monitor reductions.

Although EPA has not taken steps to impose numeric limits on another state, "that doesn't mean the work isn't under way," Bodine said.

EPA published the final rule for Florida in November, setting the effective date 15 months out to allow time for changes (Greenwire, Nov. 15, 2010)

The rule replaces vaguely worded standards for what constitutes an unacceptable level of pollution in a given lake, river or stream with specific numeric limits on how much nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment for each water body.

In their letter to Congress yesterday, industries estimated the regulation could cost Florida taxpayers as much as $21 billion to outfit sewage and storm water treatment plants with the necessary pollution controls. Environmental groups say such staggering cost estimates are scare tactics based on faulty assumptions -- among them, that sewage would have to be treated with the highest drinking water filtration technology available.

For its part, EPA estimated the statewide cost of compliance with the new nutrient limits at $135 million to $206 million annually, or between $40 and $71 per year, per household.

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) moved this week to block EPA's effort, filing an amendment to the House GOP leadership's proposed spending plan that would block the agency from spending money to "implement, administer or enforce" the new water quality standards.

"Unfortunately, the EPA is using Florida as a guinea pig with this proposed rule," said Rooney spokesman Michael Mahaffey.

David Guest, the Earthjustice attorney in Florida who sued EPA to force the water pollution mandate in question, noted that while other states are taking voluntary steps to implement numeric pollution limits, only in Florida has the agency encountered such fierce and vocal opposition.

"What's really going on here in Florida is kind of a road test of two things: Is the science really going to work and are the costs really affordable? I think the clear answer is yes to both," Guest said. "The third issues is, when you pit agribusiness and a handful of polluting industries up against clean water, how do you make out? And this is an environment where there seems to be a view that there is a constitutionally protected right to destroy somebody else's property with your pollution."