Doug Ohlemeier, Eastern Editor 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.