Pollution in the St. Johns River (Pic by deadgirlsdontdance, via Flickr)

The Florida Senate gave final passage to a bill approving a set of state-drafted water pollution rules late Thursday, a move environmentalists say is a “slap in the face to Floridians” dealing with algal blooms and fish kills caused by poor water quality. Critics charge that the rules drafted by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection are not as strong as the ones drafted by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The environmental law firm Earthjustice filed suit against the EPA (on behalf of various state environmental groups) in 2008, alleging that the agency was failing to meet requirements of the Clean Water Act.

The group won the suit, and the EPA was required to draft and implement a stricter set of water pollution rules (also called the “numeric nutrient criteria”) for the state of Florida. But concerns over cost have plagued the agency, which eventually announced that it would allow the state to draft its own rules as an alternative, after approval by the EPA.

House Bill 7051, which directs the the state to send its proposed rules to the EPA for review within 30 days, passed the Senate 38-0 with no debate. Last week, the the Florida House of Representatives also unanimously approved the bill.

Earthjustice is now challenging the state’s standards for nutrient pollution in an administrative law trial, which is set to begin Feb. 27.

“This is a slap in the face to Floridians, who are dealing with the public health threat and economic devastation from these nauseating toxic algae outbreaks on our rivers, lakes, springs and beaches,” said Earthjustice attorney David Guest, following the bill’s passage. “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. What tourist wants to come to Florida and see green, slimy water and ‘No Swimming’ signs?”

According to an Earthjustice press release, more than 16,000 people have written to the White House supporting the EPA’s rules.

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.”

Several waterbodies in Florida are currently suffering the effects of nutrient pollution, which is caused by a myriad of sources — including industry runoff, failing septic tanks and commercial fertilizers. Nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen often lead to large-scale algal blooms which, in addition to being noxious and aesthetically displeasing, choke off oxygen to other forms of marine life – causing fish kills and even dolphin deaths.

The new proposed criteria would not only be more strict, but more site-specific, as well.

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