Sun Sentinel

August 31, 2016

 

Nelson, local leaders question Florida changing water pollution rules

Erika Pesantes and Andy Reid

 

http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/florida/fl-deutch-nelson-toxic-water-20160831-story.html

 

With water pollution already fueling toxic algae blooms in Florida, the state shouldn't allow more toxic chemicals to flow into waterways, South Florida officials warned Wednesday.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson met with local leaders in Fort Lauderdale Wednesday to discuss concerns about the state's plan to ease some limits on potentially cancer-causing chemicals that drain into waterways.

In July, the state's Environmental Regulation Commission endorsed a proposal to adjust the allowable limits on 43 chemicals the state already regulates, while adding new standards for 39 chemicals the state hasn't been regulating.

The pollution rules are meant to protect drinking water as well as keep waterways safe for swimming and seafood safe to eat.

Supporters have called the proposed regulatory changes a safe, science-based update, but opponents argue it is an industry-friendly plan that risks public health.

The changes involve chemicals that can end up in drinking water and come from pulp and paper mills, wastewater treatment and electricity plants, dry cleaners and oil and gas companies, Nelson said.

"The science will show that some of these, being carcinogens, have a direct link to diseases such as cancer," Nelson said.

Nelson said he wants to raise awareness about the issue and not allow the plan to be an "administrative fiat in the state of Florida that is going to violate the Clean Water Act."

While changing the limits on those chemicals isn't directly tied to the pollution problem causing the ooze of bright green, toxic algae that this summer has spread from Lake Okeechobee to waterways near Stuart, critics say the state's proposed changes risk adding even more of a pollution strain to Florida's waters.

The state's approach puts "at risk the health of Floridians, can hurt our economy and could also risk our incredible natural resources, [and it] is a dangerous path to go down," said U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, one of the local leaders at Wednesday's discussion of the proposed rule changes.

"The proposal was rushed through on a fast-track schedule that cut off debate from important stakeholders and from the public," Deutch said. "The process was extremely flawed."

Nelson this week raised concerns about "serious environmental, economic and public health implications" with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency  which decides whether to approve the state's proposed pollution standard changes.

Before the EPA decides whether to approve the state's recommended changes, Nelson wants the agency to hold a series of public meetings in Florida to hear the concerns.

"Florida's proposal does not set chemical levels with the safety of vulnerable populations like children and the elderly in mind," Nelson wrote in an Aug. 30 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. He also said he was "deeply concerned that the public engagement on this serious public health proposal was inadequate."

State officials counter that federal scientists and information from the World Health Organization helped craft the proposed chemical pollution standards.

The proposed changes have been four years in the making, would update 20-year-old regulations for 43 chemicals and add new rules for 39 chemicals that weren't covered in the past, Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said.

"Our number one priority is to continuously protect and preserve the health of Florida's families, visitors and incredible natural resources," Miller said.

The proposed pollution standards target dozens of chemicals such as benzene, beryllium, chlordane and isophorone, to name a few.

Potentially increasing allowable levels of benzene, which is a byproduct of fracking, "sets the table for fracking operations here in Florida," Deutch said.

Capt. Bill Kelly, of the Florida Keys Commercial Fisherman's Association, said the possibility of more chemicals in the water is a grave concern for his organization because it ultimately affects seafood consumers. Larger accumulations of toxins and carcinogens "thereby impact folks that are entitled to a fresh fish sandwich or a fish dinner," he said.

The method used to determine proposed allowable levels of chemicals is "not adequately protective of public health and the environment" and would set a negative precedent for the entire country, said Jennifer Hecker, director of natural resource policy for Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

"They essentially would double the risk for serious diseases, including cancer," Hecker said.

Gov. Rick Scott appoints the seven-member Environmental Regulation Commission, which on July 26 supported the proposed pollution limit changes. The contentious 3-2 commission vote occurred with vacancies for two commission seats that represent environmental advocates and Florida's local governments.

The city of Miami and the Seminole Tribe of Florida are among the entities that have filed a legal challenge to the commission's decision.

abreid@sunsentinel.com, 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews