A group of environmentalists — including the Sierra Club and the St. Johns Riverkeeper — announced today that they have filed a legal challenge to a set of water pollution standards drafted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The “numeric nutrient criteria” came about as a result of a 2008 lawsuit brought by environmental groups represented by environmental law firm Earthjustice; they contented that Florida was in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Though the federal EPA was set to draft its own set of standards to be implemented in Florida, the agency recently agreed to allow the state to develop its own rules, which the EPA must still approve. In a recent handout, members of the Florida Water Coalition contended that the standards drafted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are so poor that they “would actually be less protective than no numeric nutrient standards.”

Today, environmental groups filed a petition that would invalidate those rules.

“The DEP’s decision to weaken pollution standards is an economic slap in the face to the thousands of Floridians who work in the tourism industry,” said St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon, who has watched Florida businesses suffer as the St. Johns is inundated with algal blooms and fish kills, brought on by excess nutrients. “This pollution hurts people who work in restaurants, hotels, beach concessions, the fishing industry, the boating industry, the dive industry, and the real estate sales and rental markets.”

In 2009, the EPA set numeric limits for the phosphorus and nitrogen that comes from sewage, fertilizer and manure in Florida waters. The groups filing the petition say those limits were akin to a speed limit sign, in that they gave everyone fair notice of what specific level of pollution would be allowed in a particular water body. If that limit was exceeded, regulators could take action to prevent toxic algae outbreaks. But the state’s rule, they argue, doesn’t provide that certainty, and it won’t protect public health.

“The DEP rule basically says: ‘Well, there could be a speed limit sign here, but we need to do a study first and then we’ll decide.’ Under the state DEP rule, by the time the state takes action, a waterway is already slimed. The whole point is to clean it up before it gets that bad,” said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation, in a press release.

During a Thursday afternoon press release, the Sierra Club unveiled an interactive map of all the state waterways currently plagued by algae and slime. As previously reported by The Florida Independent, algal blooms often hurt the bottom line of Florida communities that rely on the health of their waters for recreation, fishing and business.

The administrative challenge was filed by Earthjustice in the Florida Division of Administrative Hearings, on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, the St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

“We have a massive fish kill in Estero Bay right now, and it is happening because the state has delayed acting to solve this major pollution problem for the past 15 years. The DEP’s weak rule is just going to delay cleanup further. The DEP is just kicking the can down the road another 15 years, and that’s not fair to the citizens. We all deserve clean water,” said Jennifer Hecker, policy director for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

View the full legal challenge:

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