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Enviros file suit against DEP to block 'damaging' rules

Tampa Bay slime trackerA statewide environmental advocacy group today filed a legal challenge against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in an effort to block proposed water quality rules that it says fail to protect Florida's waterways and water supply.

Earthjustice, a coalition of environmental groups that include the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, St. Johns Riverkeeper and others, is challenging the proposed rules because they require that Florida waters reach a dangerous and potentially toxic level before they are deemed unsafe.

"Petitioners challenge the existing and proposed rules becuase, contrary to FDEP's claims, the rules are not designed to protect state waters from the adverse impacts of nutrient over-enrichement,'' the coalition wrote in its 30-page complaint filed with the state Division of Administrative Hearings. "Instead, these rules go so far as to prevent a finding of impairment due to nutrients until the waterbody is covered with nutrient-fueled toxic blue-green algae."

Photo credit: Tampa Bay, Florida Slime Tracker

Earthjustice has been fighting with state officials for years to get them to carry out their obligation to protect state waters under the federal Clean Water Act. New criteria imposed by the federal government will take effect in March, unless the state's rule is put in place before then.

The years of delay has led to an increasing number of toxic algae outbreaks, said Earthjustic attorney David Guest. “These outbreaks can cause rashes, breathing problems, stomach disorders, and worse. Health authorities have had to shut down drinking water plants, beaches and swimming areas. Toxic algae can kill fish, livestock and pets, and we need to be cleaning it up."

He said that the proposed DEP rule was "basically written by lobbyists for corporate polluters,” Guest said.

Gov. Rick Scott and DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard have said the agency's rules are designed to strike a balance between environmental protection and economic pragmatism. They argue that to comply with the more stringent water quality standards will cost agriculture and other interests millions and impact their ability to create jobs.

However, Neil Armingeon of the St. Johns Riverkeeper said he has watched businesses suffer as the St. Johns gets covered with repeated toxic slime outbreaks because of phosophorus run-off, sewage and other pollutants allowed to drain into the river.

“This pollution hurts people who work in restaurants, hotels, beach concessions, the fishing industry, the boating industry, the dive industry, and the real estate sales and rental markets,” he said.

This is another lawsuit in a series of enforcement actions pursued by Earthjustice in the last few years. In 2008, the organization sued the federal EPA to impose numeric limits for the phosphorus and nitrogen that comes from sewage, fertilizer and manure in Florida waters. The agency responded in 2009 and set a rule. Guest called it a “speed limit sign” that gave everyone fair notice of what specific level of pollution would be allowed in a particular water body. If the speed limit was exceeded, regulators could take action to prevent toxic algae outbreaks and green slime. But the DEP’s rule doesn’t provide that certainty, and it won’t protect public health.

By contrast, he said, the proposed DEP rule, backtracks from that by delaying enforcement of the federal rule by allowing extended studies first. "Under the state DEP rule, by the time the state takes action, a waterway is already slimed,'' said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation. "The whole point is to clean it up before it gets that bad.”

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club has compiled a photographic ‘slime tour’ of Florida that includes pictures of algae blooms caused by the pollution across the state.