TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The lingering dispute over new water pollution rules for Florida will move to an administrative law court following final passage Thursday of a bill that in effect gives them legislative approval.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection drafted the two rules as a lower-cost alternative to similar numeric nutrient standards the federal government has proposed for Florida.
Business, agriculture and utility interests support the state's rules, contending the Environmental Protection Agency's version would be too costly to comply with.
Several environmental groups support the federal rules, arguing the state's proposal is too weak and won't halt the toxic algae that is clogging Florida waters. The algae blooms are fed by such pollutants as sewage, animal manure and fertilizer.
"The (state) rules really protect the polluting industries rather than the public," said David Guest, an attorney for Earthjustice, a legal organization that represents the environmental groups challenging the rules.
A five-day administrative law hearing is scheduled to begin Feb. 27.
Gov. Rick Scott has expressed support for the state's alternative, and he's expected to sign the bill (HB 7051) into law. It waives a requirement for legislative approval of the rules. The House passed it last week and the Senate did the same Thursday, both by unanimous votes.
"It's really just one more tool" to control pollution, said Drew Bartlett, DEP's environmental assessment and restoration director.
Bartlett said the state already uses its permitting powers and other programs for that purpose.
Environmentalists, though, contend those efforts haven't worked. The groups represented by Earthjustice sued EPA, accusing the federal agency of failing to require that the state adopt numeric nutrient rules to comply with the federal Clean Water Act. The agency agreed to draft its own rules to settle the lawsuit in 2009.
The state and federal rules both use the same numeric limits for nitrogen and phosphorus. The state rules, though, require a study to determine if those pollutants are causing biological harm into a particular water body before action can be taken.
Guest said that's a good idea in theory but that the rules are stacked against finding violations.
His clients in the case are the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. John's Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club.