Bill Nelson urges EPA transparency on Florida's water toxins rules
By Jim Waymer, Florida Today
Mar 9, 2018
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) this week urged federal environmental officials to ensure Florida's tweaks to the state's toxic chemical water standards protect human health and reflect public input.
The two congressmen sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, regarding pending controversial new water toxins rules created by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The "surface water" rule will govern how much toxic chemicals polluters can dump into rivers and lakes used for drinking water, including benzene — a cancer-causing petroleum byproduct used in hydraulic fracking and pervasive in tobacco smoke.
"We wrote to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to express concern that DEP’s proposal did not adequately consider potential health impacts, especially for vulnerable populations like children and the elderly," the letter said.
The new criteria would impact the types of chemicals released during hydraulic fracking, oil and gas drilling, by sewer plants, paper and pulp plants, dry cleaning businesses and other industries. Those chemicals can wind up in the water we drink and the shrimp, fish and other seafood we eat.
On July 2016, by a 3-2 vote, the governor-appointed Environmental Regulation Commission signed off on new state water quality standards for more than 82 toxic chemicals. The new DEP rule set human health criteria standards for those chemicals, determining levels of each to be allowed and deemed safe in the state's surface waters.
The standards hadn't been updated since 1992.
"We sought EPA’s engagement as this process unfolded in 2016, since the chemical standards will ultimately require EPA approval," the congressmen wrote. "In addition to monitoring the state’s use of inadequate standards and questionable methodology, we urge you to ensure there is sufficient transparency and opportunity for public engagement. Lastly, we hope the new proposal better reflects science, including fish consumption levels for the Seminole and Miccosukee Tribes, among others."
Florida environmental officials recently withdrew the rule amid a legal challenge from the Seminole Tribe, the city of Miami, Martin County and others. DEP officials said they withdrew the rule to strengthen it and to "ensure the department is relying on the latest science.
"DEP has identified an opportunity to partner with the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes to gather additional data as we move forward to protect Florida’s water," Dee Ann Miller, a DEP spokeswoman, said Friday via email. "Since these rules were not yet submitted to the EPA, Florida’s current water standards remain in place and we will keep fighting to protect our environment and ensure clean water for Florida families."
Some clean water advocates suspect other motives, and decisions likely to happen behind closed doors.
"When they think they're going to lose, they just pull the rug out from under the whole case," Linda Young, director of the Florida Clean Water Network, an advocacy group fighting for stricter water toxin criteria in Florida. "This is just a stall game. This is how it's taken 25 years."
Young's group is trying to get EPA to force Florida to update its water toxin criteria using that federal agency's stricter guidelines.
Miller said DEP is "committed to a transparent public process" as it updates the rule, and will continue to post updates for the public on its website. .
In September 2016, a Florida administrative law judge dismissed the Seminole Tribe's petition against the new water rule. Administrative Law Judge Bram Canter ruled the Seminole Tribe and three other petitioners against the water toxin rules did not meet the deadline for challenging the rule.
Lawyers for the Seminole Tribe, Martin County, the city of Miami and the Florida Pulp and Paper Association had argued that Florida rushed through new, complex criteria for the water toxins without properly notifying the public.
They challenged the administrative judge's ruling. Then this past October, the Third District Court of Appeals reversed the ruling, sending the challenge back to the administrative court.
The proposed rules set "stringent and protective criteria for 39 chemicals that currently have no limits," DEP asserted on its website. "In addition, this rule includes updates for 43 chemicals whose standards are more than 20 years old."
DEP's criteria would be stricter than the EPA guidelines for cyanide, beryllium and several other chemicals in drinking water supplies. But most of the proposed state criteria would be weaker than EPA's guidelines, conservationists say.
"In a state rich with beautiful waterways and abundant seafood, it is imperative that Florida get these standards right," Nelson and Deutch wrote.