A New Federal Precedent?

March 1, 2010

In the last issue, I wrote on the EPA’s final effluent guidelines, which were published in December 2009, and how they will change erosion and sediment control practices in the US. The numeric limits for discharges from construction sites of 10 acres or more mark a big shift for many parts of the country. Where narrative standards had applied before, strict numeric limits will now be in place.

In January, another decision by the EPA got a great deal of attention-cheers and protests both-as the agency set numeric standards in Florida for nutrient pollution. It was the first time the federal government had set legal water-quality limits for just one state. Previously, Florida had a narrative standard for controlling nutrients, similar to the narrative water-quality standards that existed in most states for sediment from construction sites under NPDES Phase II.

A little background: About 10 years ago, the EPA told Florida and other states to set nutrient limits. Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection has been collecting data and working on a draft proposal for several years. Now, however, responding to a lawsuit from environmental groups, which said the EPA has failed to enforce the Clean Water Act in the state, the EPA has gone ahead and set the limits itself, using the Florida DEP’s data but a different methodology than the DEP would have used. The EPA’s limits are more stringent for some water bodies than the state’s would have been, and business groups in Florida have complained about the higher cost of compliance.

There’s no question that Florida has a problem with nutrient pollution. Phosphorus and nitrogen, which enter the waterways from agricultural areas, fertilized landscaping, urban stormwater runoff, and other sources, lead to algae blooms and reduce available oxygen. At best, the resulting soupy green waters are bad for recreational uses and tourism; at worst, they harm aquatic life and, according to the EPA, can be harmful to humans as well-toxins from the algae as well as the chemical disinfectants used to remove it from drinking water supplies have been linked to a number of health problems. The problem is widespread: Florida’s DEP has reported that about 16% of river miles, 36% of lake acres, and 25% of estuaries are impaired by nutrients.

The standards are not yet final. The EPA has been accepting comments holding public hearings; it will establish its final standards for Florida’s lakes, rivers, and streams by October 2010, and those for estuarine and coastal waters by October 2011.

Will this decision set a precedent for the EPA to take the same sort of action in other states and for specific pollutants? And would that be good for water quality, bad for local decision-making, or possibly both? I’d like to hear your take on the subject—you can e-mail me at [email protected] or leave your comments below.

About the Author

Janice Kaspersen

Janice Kaspersen is the former editor of Erosion Control and Stormwater magazines.