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Appeals court throws out challenge to clean water settlement

Algae A federal appeals court today struck down a challenge filed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and several chemical companies and upheld a clean water settlement between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and conservation groups. 

The 2009 settlement requires EPA to set limits on sewage, fertilizer and manure in Florida’s waterways to prevent the toxic algae blooms that have suffocated waterways across the state. Download Earthjustice 048-Court Opinion - Appeal Dismissed[1]

(Photo: Anabaenaalgae bloom in Caloosahatchee River at Franklin Lock, June 17, 2008)

"This was a sharp rebuke to the polluter association because it put the health of Florida families and the safety of our waters ahead of corporate polluters,'' said David Guest, a lawyer for Earthjustice, which represented the conservation groups.

The standards set by the EPA as a result of hte 2009 settlement was "like putting a red light camera on the polluters,'' Guest said. "You discover that the sewage treatment plants are not complying with the law. You find agriculture didn’t stop at red lights ever. It exposes the truth about what the polluters are really doing and what the consequence is."

But the new requirements caused such an extraordinary controversy that agricultural and business groups filed 11 lawsuits challenging the EPA standards. Those lawsuits have been joined by Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam who have said that the rules were "arbitrary and capricious" and, if allowed to remain in place, will cripple local government and businesses.

“These new rules will have a drastic financial impact on local governments and communities who are already working to comply with Florida’s existing standards under the Clean Water Act,'' Bondi said in a December statement.

The conservation groups argue, however, that left unchecked, the phosphorus and nitrogen in sewage, manure and fertilizer will continue to plague Florida. Last year alone, the St. John's River in northesat Florida had a 100-mile long algae outbreak. The once-clear Wakulla Springs in North Florida has become murky and green because of sewage. And this year, the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida was covered with green slime and rotting fish for weeks.

The outbreaks also threaten public health, Earthjustice argued, making are people and animals sick, contaminate drinking water, cause fish kills, and shut down swimming areas.