Tampa, Fla. — Florida's sandy soil soaks up toxic chemical wastes like a sponge. And only a few feet below in many areas lie underground aquifers, which supply 90 percent of Florida's drinking water.
Last year the state was cited by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for having more illegal toxic-waste dumps than any other state in the union.
These facts have combined to cause concern among Floridians. In response, the state just passed tough new rules to control what industries and municipalities can allow to seep into the ground.
''People are drinking bad water in this state today,'' says Terry Cole, assistant secretary of the Department of Environmental Regulation. ''We have problems that are right now very serious.''
The new rules require generators of liquid hazardous wastes to set up wells to monitor ground-water quality in areas where the material is disposed, and file water-quality reports with the state. Water that runs off of a disposal site must also meet state standards.
The statutes also list a number of toxic substances that the state will not allow to be discharged in any quantity.
''These are the first rules in the Southeast that specifically address ground water,'' says John Mason, ground-water specialist in the EPA's Southeast regional office. ''They are among the most stringent in the country.''
But others say the new laws are just a beginning.
''These rules are just a stab by the department to get a handle on beginning to protect ground water,'' said commission member Raymond Bellamy. ''Whole areas like storm water, pesticides, and illegal dumping are not covered, and these are public health dangers.''
But industry officials, who lobbied long and hard to weaken the rules, complain that the laws are too strict.
''This is more bad news for the unemployed workers of the phosphate fertilizer industry and farmers everywhere,'' said Tim Clarke, spokesman for the Florida Phosphate Council, the trade association of the state's huge but recession-beset phosphate industry. ''These rules will add unnecessary costs to phosphate mining and other depressed industries.''