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Federal Clean-Water Fight Comes to Jacksonville PDF Print E-mail
Written by Marjorie Holt   
Friday, April 16 2010

Federal clean-water fight comes to Jacksonville
Source URL: http://jacksonville.com/news/florida/2010-04-15/story/federal-clean-water-fight-comes-jacksonville


By Steve Patterson
A statewide dispute over planned federal water standards to fight algae blooms led both sides to a Jacksonville hotel Thursday for a final hearing on rules critics call a "water tax."

While people from businesses affected by the rules argued for changes or delays, environmental activists cheered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for acting on a subject the state studied for years without resolving.

"It is way past time to get on with these [rules]. ... They have drug their feet long enough," said Ben Williams, a seafood merchant from St. Johns County. He said algae levels, and the odor and health concerns connected with them, have helped drive some people away from buying locally caught fish.

As part of a lawsuit settlement, EPA agreed last year to set maximum levels of nitrogen and phosphorus allowed in Florida waterways. Both of those feed algae growth, a recurring concern for many people along the St. Johns River and other waterways.

 

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The EPA levels would be numeric standards, which advocates said would be clearer and more useful than so-called "narrative" standards the state traditionally used. Those say nitrogen and phosphorous levels shouldn't be allowed to disrupt natural ecosystems.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection had been researching how to set numeric standards for several years when EPA said it was stepping in.

The federal agency proposed standards in January for freshwater lakes and streams and for South Florida canals. It will propose standards for river estuaries, such as the St. Johns River in Jacksonville, next year.

Opponents of the EPA standards say they're tougher than needed and will make farmers, water utilities and others waste money.

The actual cost of cleaner water remains a matter of debate and rhetoric. EPA estimates its proposal might increase costs by up to $140 million annually statewide.

But affected business groups that formed a group called Don't Tax Florida have circulated forecasts of costs topping $50 billion that they say would put the state at an economic disadvantage against places with looser rules.

Partly because of the volume of critics' resistance, EPA had already held hearings in five cities before coming to Jacksonville's Clarion Hotel Airport, where about 100 people came for the first of two sessions scheduled Thursday.

Some critics lamented that the state hadn't finished its own standards.

"I'm for rules. I'm just for the process that DEP was following," said Jack Frost Jr., a Lakeland-area fertilizer salesman.

But the state had a lot of time to act, said St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon, whose group was part of the lawsuit that led to EPA's proposals.

"This is a significant problem that is not being address at the state level," he said.

"Every summer for the past five years, it has come to our community and diminished the quality of our life," Armingeon said, adding that last year algae blooms on the St. Johns started by early spring and lasted in some form until this winter's sustained cold snaps.

Jeb Smith, a fifth-generation farmer from Hastings, said he worried about costs his family would incur and said past efforts to balance stewardship with the bottom line "are proving to be wasted."

Ephraim King, the science and technology director at EPA's Office of Water, asked Smith to describe some of those costs in writing later this month so people in his agency could look into them.
 
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