Critics battle EPA on water
Highlands Today – November 2, 2011
New Environmental Protection Agency water quality standards in Florida would cost agricultural industries hundreds of million of dollars and cause sharp increases in food prices, according to state and local agricultural officials.
EPA officials say the new “Numeric Nutrients” standards — which are scheduled to become law in March — are needed to maintain water quality in the state and that the costs have been exaggerated by critics.
Those critics include local farming and citrus officials, and the state of Florida. The state has filed a lawsuit against the EPA asking for a temporary injunction against the new standards. The suit is backed by citrus groups and other agricultural organizations. The critics say the EPA standards are not scientifically based and will not substantially improve water quality.
The proposed EPA standards are different for each body of water — streams, rivers, lakes, etc. — in the state but, in almost all cases, the proposed mandate is higher than the federal standards currently in use.
The standards are without scientific justification, according to Rich Budell, director of the Office of Agricultural Water Quality for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“It’s unreasonable but they excel at being unreasonable,” Budell said of EPA officials. “We don’t believe their methodology has adequately captured the variety of waters that exists in Florida.”
The state has also picked up the support of both of Florida’s U.S. senators and U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, who represents Highlands County. Rooney has an ongoing feud with the EPA about the standards, and has some harsh words for the agency and for Lisa Jackson, its administrator.
Jackson will not agree to complete “the most basic scientific and economic studies on this rule to back up the rule and analyze its impact,” Rooney said. “This my-way-or-the-highway attitude isn’t helpful as we try to reach a compromise, which is my goal.”
The first hearing on the state’s lawsuit will be held in January. Budell said the state hopes a federal judge will issue an injunction against the federal agency.
Budell said state officials are continuing negotiations with the EPA and there is a possibility some compromise can be reached before the court date. The EPA should accept the water quality standards and procedures established by the state Department of Environmental Protection, he said. The state DEP standards maintain water quality without the multimillion-dollar cost, he said.
Ray Royce, president of the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association, strongly backs the state.
“The citrus community is extremely concerned that the EPA has proposed criteria that is not feasible for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is there is no scientific basis for it,” Royce said.
Royce said he agreed with the state analysis that the cost of implementation would be $1 billion to $1.6 billion. Although the initial costs would be born by agricultural businesses, much of the cost would be passed along to consumers, raising the price of food and services at a time when many residents are struggling to make ends meet, he said.
An op-ed written in March by Rooney and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio charged that water bills in the state could double and that the total cost of the EPA rules could reach $2 billion.
Both Budell and Royce emphasize that the state DEP is backing standards that are reasonable, maintain the quality of the state’s water supply and are much less costly.
EPA officials would not comment directly but released a statement about the dispute.
“EPA believes that numeric standards are necessary to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act in Florida, whether these are designed by FDEP or EPA. These standards are and must be based on the best available science and significant public input.
“EPA scientists consulted with scientific experts in Florida and calculated the standards for Florida’s inland waters based on a review of over 13,000 water samples that the state collected from over 2,200 sites statewide,” according to the statement released by EPA public affairs specialist Davina Marraccini.