(Pic by marbla123)

Dozens of politicians, lobbyists, and industry heads have written to both the EPA and Congress to argue against new water quality standards that would force many big utilities and agricultural companies to reduce the amount of waste they dump in Florida’s water bodies. Their argument? The rules would be far too costly to follow for industries in a state already grappling with record-high unemployment.

But according to internal Department of Environmental Protection emails obtained by The Florida Independent, the extravagant cost estimates regularly cited by Florida leaders were crafted by an industry-dominated organization, and were routinely disputed within the department.

Florida waterways have been suffering from ineffective pollution standards in recent months. In addition to drastic reductions in wetlands, many estuaries and lakes have been inundated with blue-green algal blooms that release toxins and use up large amounts of oxygen — leading to fish deaths, bird deaths, and possibly even mammal deaths. Scientists recently labeled a rash of dolphin deaths in the St. Johns River a “marine mammal unusual mortality event,” one of only 50 such events to occur nationwide in the past 20 years.

Currently, Florida relies on a narrative water quality standard, the wording of which (.pdf) has been criticized as too vague to be effective. The rule reads, ”In no case shall nutrient concentrations of a body of water be altered so as to cause an imbalance in natural populations of aquatic flora or fauna.”

The newly proposed criteria would be more site-specific, more strict, and, according to industry representatives, extremely costly. But where exactly are these cost projections coming from? And are they accurate?

The EPA has estimated the cost of implementing the criteria at around $130 million, but representatives for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection — the agency in charge of drafting the criteria — have argued otherwise.

During a September River Summit held in Jacksonville, the department’s Darryl Joyner fired back at the EPA. “The EPA has significantly underestimated costs,” he said. “We think the cost will be somewhere between $5 and $8 billion. … In fact, I’ve seen some models that suggest the cost to be closer to $50 billion.”

Rod Reardon, an engineer with Carollo Engineers, mentioned his company’s projected costs in an August hearing on the nutrient standards, held in Tallahassee. Kurt Spitzer, executive director of the Florida Stormwater Association, told Sunshine State News that he thought costs would be closer to $200 billion.

One model that projects costs to be upwards of $8 billion was completed by Carollo Engineers for the Florida Water Environment Association, a nonprofit corporation that describes itself as “committed to the preservation and enhancement of the global water environment.”

According to its website, the FWEA’s Utility Board is comprised of a host of industry names and includes representatives of some of Florida’s most notorious polluters.

JEA, well known for being the St. Johns River’s no. 1 point-source polluter, is represented on the board by both Scott Kelley and Paul Steinbrecher. Steinbrecher, who acts as the Utility Board’s president, has been outspoken in his opposition to the nutrient criteria and has been quoted several times saying that water bills could skyrocket once the criteria are implemented.

Other members of the board include Jessica Weatherby of Jones Edmunds, a consulting firm specializing in wastewater treatment plants, and Elizabeth Perez of the environmental consulting firm Brown and Caldwell. Noted polluter Georgia-Pacific engaged (.pdf) Brown and Caldwell to conduct a study of its plant, which found that a pipeline to reroute effluent directly into the St. Johns River was its only viable option.

The Department of Environmental Protection itself — which has been accused of pandering to industry lobbyists rather than protecting the environment — is also represented, by Fred Rapach.

In a Jan. 26, 2010 email obtained by The Florida Independent through a public records request, department representatives discussed the differences between EPA estimates and those completed by the FWEA. According to the emails, the EPA estimated the annual costs to municipal wastewater treatment facilities to be around $52.9 million, while FWEA estimates ran from $24 to $50 billion in capital costs.

The email, which was written by the department’s Phil Coram and sent to fellow department employees, suggests that the source of the FWEA cost estimate was not clear and that the estimate was based on all wastewater treatment plants, “regardless of where they discharge” — meaning it included costs from plants that would not be affected by new standards:

As you can see, we believe that the FWEA significantly overestimates the costs for several reasons:

* They overestimate the number of facilities that will be affected, at least on their high range estimates.
* They do not consider that facilities might switch from surface discharge to other more cost effective forms of wastewater management and disposal, such as reuse or deep wells, and therefore not incur the costs to upgrade to AWT, reverse osmosis, and the use of brine concentrators.
* Some of their math is wrong.

The Department of Environmental Protection did not return calls requesting more information on the FWEA’s estimate.

Jennifer Hecker, a policy manager for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, calls industry cost projections “substantially overblown.” Hecker says that the Department of Environmental Protection has shifted its focus from doing the right thing for the environment to doing the right thing for polluting industries, and the cost projections reflect that.

“People think that these are all independent entities creating these cost-projection reports, but it’s actually the industries being affected by this,” Hecker says. “Obviously, the industry isn’t going to embrace anything that could potentially drive its costs up. To put nutrients into a waterbody is very cheap. To remove them is expensive.”

Hecker says that the issue is a confusing one for most Floridians, who simply don’t understand the complex science behind it. Recent reports of big jumps in utility prices have surely turned many off, but are they even legitimate?

According to Hecker, utility leaders toss around big numbers but leave out important information when making their claims. Many of the projections make assumptions that all treatment plants will have to start using reverse osmosis, but Hecker says this isn’t so. “There is flexibility in the system that people don’t understand,” she says.

Hecker also points out that polluters will have 15 years to achieve compliance. “It’s not like anyone is going to be blindsided,” she says. “The costs are literally spread over decades.”

The underlying issue, according to environmentalists like Hecker, is that Florida thrives on its ecology, specifically its water. The gulf oil spill revealed just how inextricably linked the state’s environment and the economy really are.

“This problem grew out of control because current standards are ineffective,” says Hecker, “and if it keeps spiraling out of control, taxpayers will have to shoulder the costs. … If we do nothing, we are degrading the very thing that draws people to Florida. It’s not just sunshine that Florida has to offer, it’s water. It’s in our economic interests to make progress on this. Why hasn’t anyone done a cost projection on what happens if we don’t implement the standards?”

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