Review shows EPA underestimated cost of soon-to-be-implemented Florida water standards

The Wacissa River (Pic by anoldent, via Wikimedia Commons)

The costs for Florida to switch to a more stringent set of water pollution standards are expected to exceed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates, according to a National Research Council report released yesterday.

According to the report, the EPA considered only those waters that would be newly listed as “impaired” under the numeric criteria when calculating the cost of switching from the state’s current, narrative standard to the more stringent rules.

The committee that wrote the report concluded that the EPA “was correct in its approach to calculating the cost of the rule change” but says that the agency “underestimated both the number of newly impaired waters and the mitigation costs for the stormwater, agricultural, septic system, and government sectors.”

“Furthermore,” reads the report, “there was significant uncertainty in the estimates for the municipal and industrial wastewater sectors, making it difficult to know whether the EPA underestimated or overestimated those costs.”

The committee also found that the costs of the rule change would be small compared “to the total costs that will ultimately be required to restore Florida’s waters.”

The committee did not produce its own cost estimate for implementing a set of numeric nutrient criteria in the state, and did not assess the numeric criteria themselves. The report issued yesterday was merely a review of the EPA’s cost estimates.

Currently, Florida relies on a narrative water quality standard, the wording of which (.pdf) has been criticized as too vague to be effective. A numeric standard, however, would express specific allowable concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus (nutrients which often lead to algal blooms and fish kills) in water.

A lawsuit settled in 2009 resulted in a mandate requiring Florida to implement stricter rules. Though the EPA is the federal agency mandating those rules, the agency has said it would allow the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to develop its own rules, and implement them if they are approved.

A portion of those rules is slated to go into effect in early July.

Cost estimates for the Florida-specific criteria have varied widely – the EPA itself has said its criteria could cost the state about $236 million annually. Critics, however, charge that the EPA’s version could cost as much as $50 billion to implement. The state Department of Environmental Protection has estimated the cost of its own criteria to be between $51 and $150 million annually.

According to the National Academy review, “future cost analyses of rule changes would be improved if they explicitly described how a rule would be implemented over time and its impact on costs.”

“If EPA had conducted such an analysis,” says the review, “it would have found that point sources — such as municipal and industrial wastewater treatment facilities — will face increased costs sooner under the numeric nutrient criteria than under the narrative process.”

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