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State May Appeal EPA Clean Water Rules

State officials said Tuesday they’re considering going to court over an August consent decree requiring Florida to adopt federal clean water standards by late next year.

With municipal governments, and public and private utilities saying it will cost them billions to comply, Gov. Charlie Crist and other Cabinet members said the consent decree entered between a coalition of environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in August has the potential of undoing nearly a decade of state efforts to improve water quality standards.

In response, Crist said the state may challenge the EPA ruling once it sees where the upper limits on nutrients – or pollution – are set. Any challenge would likely be filed after the proposed nutrient levels take effect Oct. 1.

“There are plenty of opportunities to appeal, to be heard,” Crist said.

Critics say preliminary indications are that EPA may issue water quality standards that are so stringent that meeting them would be financially impossible for local governments already strapped for cash and result in monthly utility bills doubling for water users.

In a letter to Lisa Jackson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink also asked the agency to delay implementation of the consent order and more closely coordinate its efforts with state environmental officials.

“I am a strong supporter of the Clean Water Act and share your goals of protecting Florida waters and improving the quality of waters that are impaired,” wrote Sink, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. “I also recognize that setting unrealistic water quality standards will have an enormous economic impact during what are already very challenging times for our state.”

Backers of the decree, however, say the state has moved too slowly in its efforts to reduce the nutrient levels in Florida rivers, lakes, springs and estuaries. Such nutrient levels, they contend, have led to an explosion of harmful algae blooms and other health hazards.

“Florida’s lakes and rivers are economic benefits for the state,” said Monica Reimer, staff attorney for EarthJustice. “The problem is that they aren’t safe anymore.”

Frustrated over the pace of enacting federal Clean Water Act, environmental groups sued EPA in July 2008.

The lawsuit argued that the EPA had failed to enforce provisions of the federal Clean Water Act, despite an agency ruling in 1998 ordering states to comply with its edict to set verifiable limits on nutrient discharges that are largely responsible for algae blooms and other degradation of Florida's inland waters.

EPA is expected to release proposed requirements in January, with final rules entered into by Oct. 1, 2010.
Agricultural interests including the Florida Farm Bureau, fruit and vegetable growers and the Florida Cattleman's Association argue that the decree did not give regulators enough time to establish scientifically valid numeric limits on nutrient levels.
In August, a federal judge approved a consent degree between the EPA and litigants. Last month, U.S. Judge Robert Hinkle upheld the ruling over the objections of state officials.

On Tuesday, Paul Steinbrecher, vice president of the Florida Water Environment Association Utility Council, said the cost of implementing the EPA rulings could reach $100 billion, a figure based on nutrient levels higher than those being considered by the agency. That translates into higher utility bills for customers, who may see their bills more than double.

“From the technical information we’ve received from EPA, these estimates are conservative,” Steinbrecher said.

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