EPA gives Florida 12 months to fix its water quality standards 2022-12-05

This month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required the State of Florida to update its water quality standards within twelve months, or EPA will do it instead.

This is an outcome WWALS and other Florida Waterkeepers have been pursuing since at least 2016, before we got the Suwannee Riverkeeper license and before the formation of Waterkeepers Florida.

[Determination, Map]
Determination, Map

Douglas Soule and James Call, Tallahassee Democrat, December 5, 2022 (updated December 7, 2022), EPA: Florida must change water quality standards to protect citizens’ health

TALLAHASSEE — The United States Environmental Protection Agency has determined that Florida’s antiquated water quality standards do not go far enough in protecting its citizens — particularly those who consume fish — from pollutants and adverse health effects.

Here is that EPA Determination.

Back to the newspaper article:

Florida’s current criteria for 40 toxic pollutants runs afoul of the Clean Water Act, does not reflect the latest science and must be changed to safeguard a state that has a vibrant seafood industry, the agency said in a letter released Thursday by the federal agency.

A big issue: Florida’s projection that its residents eat 6.5 grams of fish per day. That number came from standards adopted three decades ago, and the agency said it “does not keep pace with the current practices of Florida residents.”

Florida ranks 11th among American states for fresh seafood production with 87 million pounds harvested and a dockside value of $237 million, according to a 2016 report by the Florida Department of Agriculture.

The EPA says it is “particularly concerned that people eating fish they catch for sustenance are being disproportionately impacted.” More fish consumption means more exposure to the toxins within, meaning the acceptable amount of pollutants in waterways would need to be reconsidered.

EPA: Florida has no human health criteria for 37 pollutants

The agency also says the state has “no human health criteria” regulating 37 toxic pollutants. The EPA set a one-year deadline for creating standards, as well as for criteria changes for the 40 toxic pollutants.

The decision came following a petition by the Environmental Defense Alliance and Waterkeepers Florida.

“These groups recognize that the 6.5 grams per day was not appropriate for Florida, and it results in potential exposure of humans who consume fish and shellfish to adverse health effects,” said David Ludder, a Tallahassee lawyer representing the Environmental Defense Alliance.

“The Clean Water Act says you have got to protect human health, and Florida is not doing that,” he said.

Florida vows to update standards

A spokesperson for Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection acknowledged receiving the EPA determination and said the agency is “evaluating next steps to further strengthen protection of Florida’s waters.”

“Florida has long acknowledged the need and has been working to update its standards, and we look forward to working with EPA and stakeholders as we move forward in this process,” said DEP’s Alexandra Kuchta.

“The department remains committed to a transparent public process as we move forward updating the state’s Human Health Criteria.”

As so often with FDEP, that sounds good, but no such process has yet been published.

The article notes:

Florida last updated its human health criteria for surface waters in 1992. DEP took new standards to the Environmental Regulation Committee in 2013, but the board tabled them in part over questions about fish consumption data used to calculate limits.

Then in 2016, after a months-long, bitter public battle with activists, Florida regulators voted to update human health criteria for 43 dangerous chemicals it regulates for rivers, lakes, streams and coastal waters. But the DEP would have allowed less stringent standards for more than half of the 43 toxic substances it currently regulates. Many of the limits would have fallen below those recommended by the EPA, activists said at the time.

Regulators approved the standards in a controversial 3-2 vote, but the effort to modernize the out-of-date limits was withdrawn after a native American tribe challenged the standards, leaving the 1992 criteria in place.

That was the notorious meeting of the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission (ERC) in Tallahassee, with several vacant seats. WWALS and other Florida Waterkeepers tried to stop that decision.

Here is a letter we sent to FDEP at that time, raising many of the same concerns EPA has now enforced.

[our deep concern about the rule change proposed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) that would increase the allowable limits of toxic chemicals in our waterways.]
our deep concern about the rule change proposed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) that would increase the allowable limits of toxic chemicals in our waterways.

So we have a rare victory by Waterkeepers Florida and other environmental organizations and individuals. Thank you, EPA, and to all who helped!

Much of Florida is much worse affected by FDEP’s dereliction of duty, but the Suwannee, Santa Fe, Ichetucknee, Withlacoochee, and Alapaha Rivers and the many springs and lakes in the Suwannee River Basin in Florida will benefit from this EPA decision.

Thanks to WWALS Science Chair Dr. Tom Potter for reminding me to post about this decision.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

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