Floridians Fight Back Against EPA Water Nutrient Restrictions

Published August 29, 2011

Burdened by a 10.6 percent unemployment rate and a collapsed housing market, Florida’s shaky economy now faces a new challenge: The Sunshine State is squarely in the bull’s eye of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory artillery.

Costs in Dispute

EPA is proposing tough new restrictions on levels of phosphorous and nitrogen in the state’s waterways. The new standards, known as numeric nutrient criteria, apply only to Florida and will affect every industry and resident in the state.

EPA estimates the new standards will cost between $135 million and $206 million annually, or approximately $20 to $30 per Florida household per year.

The agency’s cost estimates, however, are hotly disputed by those on the receiving end of the proposed numeric nutrient criteria.

Florida’s Department of Agriculture estimates the price tag on the farming sector alone at between $800 million and $1.6 billion a year. Other studies put the cumulative costs at up to $21 billion annually, or $700 per household per year, including expenses for improving sewage plants, upgrading household septic tanks, expanding storm water systems, and devising methods to reduce runoff from farms and ranches.

Outside Activist Groups 

EPA’s targeting of Florida can be traced to the summer of 2008 when a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice (on behalf of the Sierra Club), the Florida Wildlife Federation, and other environmental groups sought to supersede efforts by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to reduce pollution in the state’s vast waterways. The FDEP’s rulemaking process, which had been underway for several years, was put aside by EPA when the federal agency entered into a settlement agreement with the environmental groups in August 2009.

EPA is planning to publish by November14 proposed regulations setting forth its numeric water quality restrictions, with final rules due to be released next August.

Currently, FDEP monitors the state’s waterways using primarily qualitative assessments of water clarity and support of appropriate plant and animal life. EPA’s numeric nutrient criteria would mandate expensive efforts to “clean up” waterways that appear unaffected by water pollution but that do not meet inflexible and controversial water nutrient standards. 

Floridians Strike Back

The backlash against EPA’s move has been so widespread in Florida that the nonprofit National Research Council (NRC) is stepping in to provide an independent assessment of the economic impacts of EPA’s proposed restrictions. NRC’s report is due in June 2012, two months before EPA’s rules are to be finalized. It is by no means clear what effect the NRC’s findings will have on the outcome of the dispute.  

Separately, the Fertilizer Institute has sued EPA, charging, among other things, the agency establishes water quality criteria that ignore causation, regulates water bodies that are achieving their designated use, and restricts nutrients that do not cause impairment.

The Florida Farm Bureau is also critical of EPA’s proposed restrictions.

“Any additional regulations, especially those that are not supported by sound science, are costly,” said Charles M. Shinn, assistant director for government and community affairs at the Florida Farm Bureau Federation. “Because growers and ranchers typically operate with small profit margins, costly regulations will result in many farmers closing their farm gates and putting up ‘for sale’ signs.

“Florida farmers and ranchers have been concerned about the environment for many years,” Shinn explained. “We have been working with the Florida Department of Agriculture, Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences for close to 30 years to research and implement science-based methods to decrease negative impacts we might have on the environment that surrounds our farms and ranches. This ongoing research puts us on the cutting edge of developing and implementing ‘Best management Practices,’ or BMPs, to address issues such as water quality, sediment movement, and pesticide drift.”

EPA Ignoring Local Concerns

By reaching agreement with multinational environmental activist groups to impose unwanted restrictions on Floridians, EPA is ignoring the needs and desires of the people directly affected by its restrictions, Shinn notes.

“Now, due to a court settlement,” Shinn observed, “EPA is penalizing farmers, ranchers, and all citizens of Florida.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.