Representatives from major industries (including JEA and Georgia-Pacific) and environmental groups (like the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Earthjustice) gathered in Orlando early this morning to discuss a much-disputed set of federal water pollution standards and the costs associated with compliance.

The National Academies’ National Research Council was tasked with conducting an independent review of the EPA’s numeric nutrient criteria, which would set pollution limits on Florida’s lakes and flowing waters. An independent, nonprofit group, the Research Council often performs third-party reviews. The group wrote the study that eventually led to the decision to ban smoking on planes.

Rather than crunching numbers, and coming out with its own estimate, the Research Council will be commenting on many of the existing analyses and exploring the costs associated with transitioning from Florida’s current standard governing waterbodies to the nutrient criteria, which will likely be much stricter.

Sara Gonzales-Rothi, legislative council for Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., was the first to speak during the Monday morning panels, and expressed major concerns about the wide-ranging cost estimates associated with implementing the criteria.

“The EPA estimated the price tag at $135 to $206 million, while the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer services found that costs to agriculture alone could be around $1.6 billion,” she said, adding that Nelson had many questions about the criteria: Is it appropriate to assume that they will or will not require reverse osmosis? Are there technologies available for treatment or control that could lessen the economic impact? And will regional, local variations in cost be taken into affect?

The decision to implement the criteria have triggered a fierce backlash across the state — particularly on the part of agricultural and industry interests and the lawmakers whose campaigns are fueled by those interests.

The EPA’s cost estimates pale in comparison to those performed for the industries that would the cost of cleaning up waterways: electric utilities, beef, dairy and citrus. Some of those estimates include assumptions that all septic systems would be replaced (the EPA says that many of those could be upgraded) and that every wastewater treatment plant in the state would be required to use reverse osmosis (a very expensive process). Specifically referencing two controversial cost estimates (one from Cardno ENTRIX, one by Carollo Engineers), the EPA’s Ephraim King implored the Research Council to ”focus on the documents that have framed the debate” over cost estimates.

King went on to say that, when Florida designates a waterway as “impaired,” it generally draws up very sophisticated standards to govern them, such as Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs. “Keep in mind that … a number of current TMDLs currently out there are more stringent than the EPA’s nutrient criteria,” said King.

The EPA’s standards are slated to go into effect on March 6, 2012.

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