With the workload of developing new nutrient water quality rules seemingly in the rear view mirror, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is moving forward on some other potentially controversial water quality issues.

DEP is responsible for protecting the quality of Florida’s drinking water as well as its rivers, lakes, wetlands and springs. The Federal Clean Water Act requires states to publicly review and update their water quality standards in what is called a “triennial review.”

LobbyTools subscribers: View additional information on DEP’s triennial review of water quality standards, and estimated Florida per capita fish consumption rates.

The department has scheduled hearings for later this month in West Palm Beach, Orlando and Tallahassee to consider its “human health criteria” involving exposure to chemicals through fish consumption.

DEP was conducting a similar review in 2008 before some environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s lack of numeric limits for nitrogen and phosphorus. That lawsuit led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set limits for nitrogen and phosphorus in Florida waterways, which prompted DEP to adopt replacement rules.

“That just became all-consuming,” said Drew Bartlett, director of DEP’s Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration. “Now that we put that to rest, we can shift those resources consumed by the numeric nutrient criteria back onto this issue. We decided to pick it straight right back up.”

The Legislature waived approval of those rules in February and the state sent them to the EPA for review. Environmental groups including the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club have a legal challenge pending at the Division of Administrative Hearings.

In 2009, the Clean Water Network petitioned the federal EPA to set human health criteria for fish consumption. Other environmental groups had sued in 1995, arguing that previous human health criteria were based on low fish consumption rates by Floridians.

DEP has conducted studies and determined that Floridians do eat more fish than those in other states, so proposed new human health criteria will have to reflect that, Bartlett said.

“It is going to become more stringent than it is currently on the books for all of those (pollution) parameters,” he said.

Although Bartlett said DEP is moving forward as planned, Clean Water Network’s Linda Youngsaid her group has warned it will sue if DEP delays action again.

“(The federal) EPA has to make sure the criteria adopted are protective of human health when those fish are consumed,” said Young, the group’s director.

After the hearings from May 15-17, DEP hopes to adopt updated rules by the end of the year, Bartlett said.

The department also is proposing limits for nitrogen and phosphorus in estuaries along the Florida Panhandle. And the department will consider setting new requirements for dissolved oxygen, which affects the amount of pollution that can be discharged into waterways.

Florida’s dissolved oxygen criteria were based on national criteria from studies conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, Bartlett said.

He said in more recent years, DEP has invested in a “huge” monitoring system in Florida to determine what dissolved oxygen conditions exist naturally in Florida. That science also will be presented at the workshops.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida is tracking the dissolved oxygen issue and has raised serious concerns with DEP, said Jennifer Hecker, the group’s director of natural resource policy.

“Sometimes by changing the goal and standard you can create compliance,” Hecker said. “It doesn’t necessarily make anything better — that is the concern. We want to see things truly improve. I think that is what Floridians want as well.”

Young warned that industry groups are seeking to allow pollution to continue by reducing dissolved oxygen — along with setting weak nitrogen and phosphorus limits and creating new designated uses for waterways with their own pollution limits.

Bartlett responded the science behind dissolved oxygen standard needs to be updated based on new science, just like with the nitrogen and phosphorus limits. And he said DEP will looking for feedback from the public at its upcoming workshops.

“We can’t really do anything at DEP that is not truly and soundly rooted in the science,” Bartlett said. “There is no other way to do it really.”

Reporter Bruce Ritchie can be reached at britchie@thefloridacurrent.com.

About the Author

Linda Young has been the executive director of the Clean Water Network of Florida since 1994. From 1989 to 1997, she founded and published a monthly statewide environmental newspaper. Over the past twenty three years, she has co-founded some of the most long-lasting and effective environmental organizations in the Southeast, including the Gulf Restoration Network, Gulf Coast Environmental Defense and C.A.T.E. She holds a B.A. in Communications from Southern Oregon University and a M.A. in Political Science/Campaign Management from the University of West Florida.

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