Stearns to Foul Waters with EPA Hearing in Orlando

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Longtime Ocala-based Congressman Cliff Stearns (R-FL6) is using his chairmanship of the US House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations to reach out and smear the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its new water rules for Florida. Known for his nearly invisible presence for 20 years in Congress, Stearns gained a chairmanship and is carrying water as Republicans wage war on the US government and environmental protection.

Water rules have been a hot issue in Florida where the state agency in charge of environmental protection found itself incapable of adopting effective standards for measuring water nutrients. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has a habit of catering to polluter industries and seemed incapable of coping with this basic issue.

Nutrient standards have to do with levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, common to fertilizers among other effluent and run-off from agriculture, industry and residential developments. Their contamination of waterways can have devastating impact, crushing ecosystems and marine inhabitants in suffocating toxic algae blooms.

Take a moment to look at the pictures. Imagine such an invasion into the relatively pristine waters and springs of north central Florida. The consequences would be catastrophic. Yet there are no viable standards for acceptable or unacceptable levels of nutrient elements in the state of Florida.

The history is pretty convoluted and serpentine. The US EPA required water nutrient standards from the states in 1999, with a deadline of 2004 for compliance. That seemed pretty reasonable. But apparently not for Florida whose DEP came up with nothing. After several years when it became clear that the EPA was not going to act to enforce its own rules in Florida (think Bush, one in Florida and one in DC), Florida environmentalists actually sued the EPA in 2008 to get it to follow through on its own rules.

The new EPA nutrient standards have been a bone of contention between the state and federal agencies since they were published. Florida DEP produced studies, paid for by polluter industries, declaring the standards impossible and too costly to implement:

Opponents assert the rules would cost $21 billion to implement. The federal agency strongly disagrees, saying the cost would be more like $130 million to $200 million. And, it says, failure to reduce pollution, which now impacts about half the state’s rivers and more than half of its lakes, could be a much greater economic drain on the state than the cost of complying.

Entities in Florida decided to sue the US EPA in an attempt to – get this! – set its own nutrient standard, something it had failed to do for over 10 years. Hello? A host of agricultural and development interests joined the action, led by corporate lobbyist heavyweight Associated Industries of Florida. AIF’s CEO Barney Bishop has had lots of amusing stuff to say, excoriating the EPA and government regulations in general, while still insisting that he’s a lifelong Democrat. By the way, they aren’t doing well on the legal front.

Then, in a truly stunning move, the EPA agreed to hold off its imposition of the new standards and let DEP take another shot at it. The Florida DEP’s next move; hold hearings. Yeah. A proposal seems imminent but it has been criticized for its utter complexity and nifty loopholes.

Part of the drama is being played out in Washington, DC where the Republicans have been orchestrating a coordinated attack on anything that seems like an environmental regulation, particularly members of the Florida congressional delegation. This pressure surely played a role in the EPA’s decision to back-off.

Given the tenor of the Scott administration and its undisguised animosity toward the environment and government regulations in principle, reasonable folks wonder how anything positive can come out of Tallahassee. (Yes, that’s a massive algae bloom along the west coast of Florida in a 2009 satellite photo. Think we have a problem?)

To add more sludge to the foul flow of right wing pollution-supporter pressure, Cliff Stearns is bringing his congressional committee’s show to Florida on August 9 in Orlando, only the latest in a long, intense campaign of saber-rattling against the EPA from Florida Republicans.

The title of the hearing leaves little to the imagination: “EPA’s Takeover of Florida’s Nutrient Water Quality Standard Setting: Impact on Communities and Job Creation.” I’m sure you can already hear echoes of Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his baseless mantra about “job killing government regulation.” I could be wrong, of course. Maybe Stearns is suggesting that creating clean waterways and improving the environment creates jobs, but I wouldn’t bet on it.