Florida updates regulations, permitting more toxic chemicals in water

In the first update to the state’s water quality standards in 24 years, the state moved to allow more toxic substances to enter the water. Environmentalists decry, and businesses support, the proposal.

Andrew Wardlow/The News Herald/AP
Geese swim along Lake Caroline in Panama City, Fla. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has announced the first update to the state's chemical regulations under the Clean Water Act in 24 years.

Proposed chemical regulations mandated under the Clean Water Act could make Florida’s surface waters more – or less – potable depending on who you talk to. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently proposed new standards for surface water pollutants, 24 years after they were last updated.

On Tuesday, the state's Environmental Regulation Commission (ERC), a seven-member panel appointed by the governor, held a public hearing and approved the DEP’s proposal by a 3-2 vote. Hotly debated were rules that create new standards for 39 chemicals that currently have no limits and updates for 43 others based on new data about national water quality trends and averages for human weight and water use released by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last summer, according to a DEP Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page about the proposal.

In response to the question, “Is DEP weakening standards?,” the DEP wrote, “Absolutely not. DEP and EPA are strengthening Florida’s water quality standards, not weakening them.” However, environmental groups such as the Florida Clean Water Action Network (FL-CWN) and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE), are fighting the rules.

"When it comes to the release of dangerous pollutants into our water supply It is important that we proceed with the utmost caution,'' wrote Laura Reynolds, an energy and water specialist with the SACE. Groups such as the SACE and FL-CWN say these regulations would benefit local industries – oil and gas drilling companies, wastewater treatment plants, dry cleaning companies, and farmers – many of which have spoken in support of the rule, according to the Miami Herald.

The new method is “more scientifically advanced as it addresses compounded conservatism, links risk targets with environmental concentrations, improves transparency and makes greater use of available of available data,” Jerry Schwartz of the American Forest and Paper Association wrote in a letter to the DEP in June.

The new criteria are inconsistent with national standards, environmentalists say. Under the proposed rules, benzene, a carcinogen that environmentalists say is found in the wastewater of oil and gas fracking plants, would increase from 1.18 parts per billion to 2 ppb in Florida’s drinking water, while the federal standard is 1.14 ppb.

Florida's DEP, however, says the EPA recommends that individual states develop their own criteria for developing standards. They prefer states “use local or regional data in place of EPA’s default value.”

The “DEP’s proposed criteria take into account how, and how much, Floridians eat seafood, drink, shower and swim, and set the limits necessary to protect Floridians from adverse health effects. The criteria consider a range of environmental variables and account for the most at-risk populations, including young children, pregnant women and those whose diets comprise primarily of Florida seafood,” the DEP writes in its FAQ.

“Through this effort, the department has regularly communicated with more than 1,000 individuals, organizations and stakeholders to provide updates and solicit feedback,” the DEP writes.

The rules took more than four years to write, according to DEP spokesperson Dee Ann Miller, who spoke with the Miami Herald, and the process included 11 public workshops and meetings around the state, as well as guidance from a scientific review panel.

Next, the criteria will go to the EPA for final review and approval, but some say that the ERC’s vote was not fair.

David Kearns, of Palm Bay, a candidate for Florida House District 53, said DEP is overly influenced by industry. "There is an appalling lack of trust in DEP science," Mr. Kearns told Florida Today, "and it's well earned. 

Two of the seven seats on the ERC are vacant. One is designated to represent local governments and the other the environmental community. Other seats represent agriculture, development, science and technology, and laypeople. 

National and international regulating bodies have already seen and supported the rules, according to the DEP. "I’ve been in contact with the federal EPA, which has confirmed every change is in line with its own recommendations,'' DEP Secretary Jon Steverson said in a statement released Monday. “Furthermore, each and every criterion protects Floridians, according to both the EPA and the World Health Organization.”

Still, the FL-CWN argues the DEP’s method, which no other state uses, underestimates the amount of seafood Floridians eat and thus the degree of resulting bioaccumulation.

The Florida “DEP justifies the change in methodology as ‘better science.’ It may be a more precise method of characterizing the population, but it will produce higher criteria values (more allowable pollution)” than other methods, the FL-CWN writes in a letter to the DEP.

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