Miami Herald

December 11, 2010


Florida fights for rights of polluters

By Carl Hiaasen

Farms, mills and municipalities that use Florida waterways as a latrine got more good news last week from their stooges in Tallahassee. The latest battle to stop the enforcement of federal pollution laws will be paid for by state taxpayers.


Outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson backed by Attorney General Bill McCollum has sued to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from imposing revised clean-water standards for Floridaís rivers, creeks and lakes.


Standing stoically in support of the polluters, McCollum and Bronson say the new water rules are too costly, and based on flawed science (interestingly, data provided by the state itself). Endorsing that lame position are their successors, Attorney General-elect Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner-elect Adam Putnam.


To hear all this whining, youíd think the EPA had ambushed Florida businesses with the new water regulations. Not even close.

Back in 1998, the EPA ordered all states to cut back pollution of so-called surface waters with damaging nutrients from farms, ranches, septic tanks and sewage-treatment facilities. The agency set a deadline of 2004 and then in the anti-regulatory spirit of the Bush era basically did nothing to follow up.


In 2008, environmental groups finally sued the EPA in order to compel enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act.


Itís not some new piece of radical legislation. It was born in 1948 as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, and expanded significantly under Richard Nixon in 1972, and again in 1977.


Floridians who arenít familiar with Clean Water Act can be forgiven, because it has never been taken seriously here by companies that dump massive volumes of waste into public waters, or by the politicians who are supposed to care about such crimes.


The Everglades wouldnít be in its current dire condition if authorities at all levels hadnít skirted and even ignored the law, permitting ranchers, sugar farmers and developing cities to flush billions of dirty gallons of runoff into the stateís most important watershed.


With good reason, after decades of getting their way, polluters became cocky and complacent. But theyíre not stupid, and the writing has been on the wall for some time.


The EPA has worked with the administrations of both Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist to come up with new water rules, often bowing to industry concerns.


Under fire in court, the EPA in 2009 finally agreed to set pollution standards for lakes and streams this year, with regulations for saltwater bays and estuaries to take effect in 2011. The agency estimates only about 10 percent of Floridaís farms and less than half the waste-treatment plants would be affected.


Still, the outcry from heavy industry and agricultural interests was instant and predictable, as was the agencyís response: another delay.


Both of Floridaís U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican George LeMieux, pushed for the EPA to back off, and polluters won a 15-month reprieve.


Heck, itís only water.


Try not to think of the crud in it as fertilizers, pesticides and human waste. Embrace more benign terms, like phosphorus and nitrogen. Thatís what the industry lobbyists prefer.


And while they haggle with scientists over how many numeric parts-per-billion is a tolerable stream of pollution, try not to worry about its impact on the public waters that your children and grandchildren will inherit, and rely on.


Itís not easy if you live along the St. Johns River, the St. Lucie waterway, the Caloosahatchee, or any number of Florida rivers and streams that for generations have been used to transport manmade waste. Nutrient pollutants spawn algae blooms, kill wildlife, choke out native vegetation and cause nasty health problems for humans.


Because of toxic freshwater runoff, the stateís southwest coast has experienced caustic red tides that littered the beaches with dead fish and sent coughing tourists scurrying back to their hotel rooms -- and then to the airport.


Among the many harsh lessons of the BP oil spill was that pollution not regulation is a more devastating job-killer. Floridaíss upper Gulf Coast received a relatively small bombardment of tar balls, but it was enough to cripple tourism and the commercial fishing trade for months. It didnít help property values, either.


The argument that itís morally indefensible to foul natural waters is futile against the outsized political clout of the polluters. Whether itís a phosphate mine, pulp mill or cane field, Floridaís leaders ó Democrats and Republicans have traditionally been happy to offer our riverss and wetlands as free sewers.


However, the blowback that dirty water is endangering thee economy is increasingly difficult to brush aside.


That didnít stop Bronson and McCollum from suing the EPA. Theyíre not doing it for the citizens of Florida; theyíre doing it for the polluters.


And theyíre paying for it with your tax dollars, at a time when the state budget is strapped for revenue.


Try not to think of this as pure crud. Just try.