A network of environmental groups contends Gov. Jeb Bush's attempt to reduce costs for businesses undermines the 30-year-old Clean Water Act, according to writers V.J. Epstein and Jim Waymer in a recent FLORIDA TODAY article.
The Clean Water Network of Florida this week filed a federal lawsuit against a rule change it claims will reduce the number of Florida's "impaired water bodies" by as much as 75 percent without any actual reduction in contamination. The change could affect approximately 700 polluted waterways, including 48 in Central Florida.
"If this goes through, it will set a dangerous national precedent," said Linda Young, southeast regional director of the Clean Water Network.
The rule change by the state Department of Environmental Protection alters the manner in which polluted areas are evaluated and categorized. Supporters say it relies upon better and more numerous tests, but critics say the change is actually a bad faith effort to disguise reduced enforcement as new science.
Since President Bush took office, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has sought to remove all Florida water bodies from the federal government's 1998 impaired water bodies list and begin categorizing them anew, Young said. There are 712 Florida water body segments on the list.
When the national-level EPA balked at Florida's proposed change earlier this year, the state responded by starting its own new "state" list. Each year, a new group of water basins will be added to the state list; for now, the list's slate as been virtually wiped clean.
For example, parts of the Indian River Lagoon and several tributaries, including the St. Sebastian River, were on EPA's 1998 list. But under the state's new rule, waterways along the lagoon wouldn't be considered for the list again until 2006.
Attorney David Ludder of the Legal Environment Assistance Foundation said if legal challenges to the new state rule fail, it could eventually supplant the federal list, as Florida has sought.
"If Florida's allowed to get away with (this rule/list change) we're going to have a lot of polluted waters described by DEP as being 'in compliance' and industry's not going to have to clean it up," said Ludder, who is handling one of the legal challenges to the state.
State environmental officials and business leaders disagree. They say their goal is not to weaken environmental standards, but to ensure the rules are more fairly applied. Under the new rules, smaller segments would be categorized impaired and businesses in adjacent areas would be freed of the more rigorous pollution standards that attend such a designation.