Categories: environment

Wrestling With Water Quality, Florida Looks to Change Standards for Toxic Chemicals

by Jeremy Morrison

Changes to Florida’s water quality standards are not happening quietly. They are occurring against a flood of protest and the rushing sound of people crying foul as the wheels of government grind onward.

The proposed changes update the state’s allowable limits on a number of chemicals considered to be human toxins. Chemicals like benzene and polychlorinated biphenyls.

The proposed changes, which cleared the state’s Environmental Regulation Commission in late July, are being hailed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection as necessary to “ensure Floridians can continue to safely eat Florida’s seafood, swim in and drink potable water from state surface waters.” But critics, such as environmentalists, as well as a state legislative delegation that outlined their concerns in a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, are framing the suggested changes as “a problematic public health proposal.”

Laurie Murphy, executive director of the local environmental advocacy group Emerald Coastkeeper, is among those freaking out about the potential changes. She feels the proposed changes “really stink,” that they’re “totally ridiculous,” “absolutely ludicrous” and “completely whacked-out.”

“Our waters are really bad,” Murphy said, taking summary stock of Northwest Florida waterways. “Almost every body of water from the creeks to the bayous to the Gulf of Mexico is considered an impaired body of water because of the high level of mercury.”

The environmentalist explains that Coastkeeper is piggybacking onto a legal challenge to the proposed changes by other organizations, such as the Sierra Club and Earth Justice, and said she doesn’t understand why state officials are looking to lower the standards on certain chemicals.

Linda Young, executive director of the Clean Water Network of Florida, thinks she knows exactly why standards on certain chemicals — such as benzene, which is used in hydraulic fracturing fluid — are being loosened.

“Because I think that our governor is trying to attract industry to the state,” Young said. “I think that he’s out there telling them that we have some of the most lax environmental laws and you can just pollute until your little heart’s content.”

That is not the view, of course, of the FDEP, which points to the fact that the state’s human-health based water quality standards were long over due for an update. States are federally mandated to do so every few years, and Florida last saw an update in 1992.

The department notes that it’s proposing limits for 39 chemicals that are previously unregulated in the state. And of the 43 chemicals for which it is proposing updates on allowable limits — some higher, some lower — it contends that the numbers will now better reflect “data specific to Florida.”

But environmentalists remain unconvinced. As do some lawmakers. In July, on the same day the ERC approved the proposed changes, a group of Florida senators and congressmen, including Sen. Bill Nelson, wrote to the EPA about their reservations.

“We are deeply concerned that the state is proposing to raise the allowable levels for dozens of chemicals, including more than half of the most dangerous cancer-causing chemicals in the proposal,” the letter stated. “In several instances, these proposed levels exceed EPA’s recommendations.”

Also sounding the alarm is the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which last week filed a challenge to the proposed changes. The tribe, some members of which continue to count fish as a considerable portion of their diet, is concerned about the new methodology and math the state is using to calculate allowable limits for the chemicals in water and marine life — limits supposedly designed to account for the safety of children and pregnant women.

“The Seminole Tribal members’ subsistence consumption rate is over 140 grams of fish per week,” the tribe’s legal challenge states. “That is five times greater than the consumption rate used for the proposed rule.”

State officials, however, maintain that the proposed changes underwent an extensive vetting and public review process. That they better protect the public and that the process and science used to determine the limits were square.

“The criteria are consistent with the level of protection contained in EPA’s recommendations and consider a range of environmental variables, accounting for the most at-risk populations, including children, pregnant women and those whose diets comprise primarily of seafood,” FDEP Spokesperson Dee Ann Miller wrote in an email. “Both the new and updated criteria have been calculated using the most advanced science, including recently issued guidance from the EPA.  Each and every criterion protects Floridians, according to both the EPA and the World Health Organization.”

But such explanations tend to ring hollow to critics who have long-since written off the modern-era FDEP as catering to corporate interests instead of acting as defenders of the environment. They see the proposed changes to water quality standards as part of a larger trend, and view the state as purposefully plodding towards a looser regulatory environment.

For proof of such, they point no further than the ERC, the advisory body that recently approved the proposed changes. The commission serves as an illustration about the direction Florida has taken .

The ERC is a seven member body that is selected by the governor and advises the FDEP. Two of the five seats — including, notably, one that represents environmental interests — have been vacant for some time.

The absence of a designated environmental voice on the panel was not lost on those fighting against the proposed changes. They read it as a deliberate design, one suited to allow looser regulations to sail through.

This was touched on repeatedly by members of the overflow crowd in attendance at the July ERC hearing. But the sentiment was perhaps best, or at least most visibly expressed by John Moran, a college student who leapt to the commission’s dais and was later lead away by law enforcement.
“The environmental community hasn’t been given a vote,” Moran said, taking a seat with the board. “The governor spat on our democratic process by keeping those seats vacant for over a year.”

Sarah Walton, a Pensacola attorney who serves on the ERC — the only commission member to respond to a request from SANDSpaper for comment on this issue — disagrees. She feels that the state is using the best available science to determine appropriate standards for Florida.

“This is a positive move in the right direction,” she said.

Walton said she has heard the concerns regarding the proposed changes, but that she, like officials at the FDEP, is comfortable with the decision made by the regulatory commission.

“I thought about this carefully and considered everything presented,” Walton wrote in an email. “I have received numerous requests to rescind my vote. I cannot do that.”

From here, the proposed changes must weather the various legal challenges they face in Florida. If they survive, they will then go before the EPA for federal approval.

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