EPA proposes water pollution legal limits in Fla.

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MIAMI (AP) — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday proposed the first numeric limits in the nation for farm and urban runoff polluting Florida’s waterways, limits supporters say could set precedent and lead to similar federal standards in other states.

The agency released its proposed rules after reaching a settlement last year with environmentalists who sued EPA in 2008. They claimed the agency was failing to force Florida to meet requirements under the Clean Water Act, and sought the numeric standards for runoff such as fertilizers and animal waste that are causing toxic algae blooms and poisoning ecosystems.

Friday’s proposed rules mark the first time the EPA plans to force numeric limits of so-called nutrient runoff on any state. A handful of other states, at the urging of the agency, have already acted to set their own standards. The remainder have vague limits on waste and fertilizer pollution, while some are in the process of developing their own numeric limits.

“It’s actually pretty good,” said David Guest, an attorney for Earthjustice, which represented environmental groups in the lawsuit, including the Sierra Club, Florida Wildlife Federation and others.

While noting the standards “aren’t as stringent as we’d like,” Guest called it “a huge leap forward in getting effective controls on sewage, fertilizer and animal manure.”

“This is the beginning of a very serious effort nationwide, and Florida is going to be a model,” he said.

The new water standards “will help protect and restore inland waters that are a critical part of Florida’s history, culture and economic prosperity,” Peter S. Silva, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Water, said in a statement.

Silva also noted that the state “has led the way with rigorous scientific analysis and data collection needed to address nutrient pollution.”

The Don’t Tax Florida coalition, a group of state associations and businesses, including the Florida Agriculture Coalition and the state Chamber of Commerce, called the proposed rules “a de facto water tax from Washington.” The group said they “will impose major economic hardship on Florida’s battered economy with questionable benefits,” and will lead to significantly higher water and sewer bills.

“It simply makes no sense to force Florida to spend billions of scarce dollars in excess of what is necessary to meet an arbitrary federal regulation,” said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said Friday it was still reviewing the proposal.

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, who along with state Attorney General Bill McCollum previously objected to federal rules being imposed only on Florida, also was still reviewing the proposal.

Agriculture Department spokesman Terence McElroy said Bronson wasn’t opposed to “reasonable efforts” to clean Florida’s waterways.

“He wants a science-based approach, which he was concerned that this may not be, and he was also concerned that the numbers … not be exceedingly expensive and ultimately unattainable,” McElroy said.

In a 2008 report, the state DEP concluded that half of the state’s rivers and more than half of its lakes had poor water quality.

The numeric standards proposed Friday set pollution limits for Florida’s lakes and rivers, as mandated in the settlement. The rules are now open for public comment, and a final rule is due before Oct. 15, 2010. The agency plans to propose nutrient limits for estuaries and coastal waterways by Jan. 14, 2011, with those final rules due by Oct. 15, 2011.

The EPA acknowledged more than 10 years ago that Florida needed to promptly develop runoff standards to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, enacted in 1972 “to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waters.”

The agency notes that nutrient pollution is among the leading causes of impairment in lakes and coastal waterways nationwide, and has been linked to so-called “dead zones” deprived of oxygen and life in the Gulf of Mexico.