A legal battle pitting the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental groups against Florida’s farming interests is moving forward.
Until a June 7 court ruling, a water quality standards case remained in a legal holding pattern, said Kerry Kates, director of the Maitland-based Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association’s water and natural resources.
On June 7, Florida administrative law judge Bram Canter upheld rules issued by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Unlike earlier federal EPA-proposed rules, the Florida agency attempted to add some sanity into the process through a transparent rulemaking procedure that was shaped through local lawmakers and natural resource scientists.
Claiming the EPA’s water rules weren’t strict enough, the Earth Justice environmental activist group in 2010 sued the EPA and claimed the agency wasn’t enforcing the 1998 Clean Water Act in Florida.
The EPA then proposed strict numeric nutrient water quality standards mandating regulation of all of the state’s waterways, including manmade canals, ditches and storm water conveyance systems.
Growers called the rules unrealistic and unattainable.
They said the rules could cripple not only the state’s agricultural production but also burden local water districts and destroy thousands of Florida jobs.
In south Florida, where numerous canals supply irrigation water, the EPA soon realized the fallacy of regulating the non-natural waterways when even the region’s water districts didn’t possess data on each canal, Kates said.
“You have the environmental groups suing to increase regulations and a federal judge deciding biology,” said Rick Roth, president of Belle Glade, Fla.-based Roth Farms and principal owner of Ray’s Heritage LLC, which grows and packs corn, beans, radishes, lettuce and other vegetables.
“It’s like, who’s representing the good guys in this?”
After the EPA backed away from its earlier regulations, environmentalists sued in federal court to require enforcement of the Clean Water Act.
Roth characterized the federal process as distorted and said it will only mean more money spent on hiring lawyers instead of investing in ways to protect natural resources that growers care about as well.
“This has become the normal way of doing business where you don’t have to go through any kind of regulatory and congressional hearings,” Roth said.
“To come up with a new regulatory standard, just file a lawsuit. This is all about driving business away from the ecosystems those groups are trying to protect.
“The people doing this don’t have any comprehension of what can and cannot be done. Let’s just set the standards really high. It’s trying to regulate you out of business.”
Signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott after the last legislative session, Florida Department of Environmental Protection regulations include an implementation method, something the EPA’s plan lacked.
The state rules also feature a biological confirmation process that could prevent healthy water bodies from being classified as impaired, Kates said.
Though the case remains far from over, Canter’s ruling is good news for growers and represents a big boost for the state’s rules, Kates said.
He said the case was a big stumbling block in trying to garner EPA’s approval of Florida’s more realistic rules and pushes the long process forward.
Canter’s ruling gives the EPA 60 days to review Florida’s rules.
The legal limbo, however, may keep the environmentalists at bay and further delay adding unnecessary additional costs to growers.
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