Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. (Pic by jonworth)

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has long portrayed himself as a friend to the ailing St. Johns River. He even made a point to visit portions of the river affected by a mysterious foam that materialized this past summer.

But on Sept. 16, Nelson appeared to side with industry, writing a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson urging a delay in finalizing the criteria that would affect the lower St. Johns, in order to allow “ample time to fully consider” public comments.

St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon hosted Nelson during a July boat trip to examine the foam, which has been spotted in various portions of the river. In some places, the foam is several inches thick. In an interview with The Florida Times-Union, Nelson appeared concerned, saying, “You can tell something’s not right. … That’s not a natural phenomenon.”

But Nelson’s concern regarding the St. Johns wasn’t enough to keep him from penning a letter urging the EPA to delay finalizing a set of stricter standards to govern the pollution that makes its way into Florida waters. Armingeon says that he is “disappointed” in Sen. Nelson, and that the St. Johns River needs all the help it can get.

Nelson’s letter came just days after a similar letter to House and Senate leaders, signed by representatives from a host of Florida industries, including the Florida Cattleman’s Association, Gulf Citrus Growers Association and Southeast Milk. The industries would likely be subject to harsher rules and regulations regarding their effluent waste once the EPA’s numeric nutrient standards go into effect.

The standards would vary according to the waterbody they govern, but parts could be finalized as early as next month, should the delay tactics be ineffective. The rules affecting coastal waters and estuaries (including the Lower St. Johns, which was recently affected by algal blooms, massive fish kills and foam) is slated to be finalized in October 2011.

In a Sept. 20 press release, national agricultural industry leaders announced that they had penned a similar letter (.pdf) to EPA administrator Jackson, saying that they were ”profoundly concerned” with the numeric nutrient criteria policies currently being implemented in Florida.

From that letter:

It is apparent that EPA’s development of [a numeric nutrient criteria] in Florida will establish a template for how NNC should be structured nationwide. The work underway in Florida is a result of a settlement agreement with activists, which is not only highly problematic but also raises fundamental questions of fairness and transparency, and effectively undermines the rights of the regulated community to customary, open proceedings.

We strongly urge EPA to:

Delay further NNC policymaking until it has engaged with all relevant stakeholders in a thorough and transparent review of the strategic direction of NNC policies.

Revisit and update the 1998 “National Strategy for the Development of Regional Nutrient Criteria” (National Strategy).

Not finish the NNC for Florida’s lakes and streams this fall and instead work on those in concert with the NNC that EPA is planning to finalize in August 2012 for all other Florida waters – and in the process answer the numerous and significant scientific, economic and policy questions about these NNC in an open and transparent manner.

Reject policymaking by settlement agreement, with its inherent opaqueness and the distrust that creates.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is currently working toward meeting the EPA’s nutrient criteria deadline, but, if recent comments by department head Mimi Drew is any indication, a delay may be on the horizon. In a weekend interview with The Florida Times-Union, Drew (who was appointed as FDEP Secretary by Gov. Charlie Crist on Sept. 14) said that working under an EPA consent decree doesn’t offer her Department a lot of flexibility, but that they are trying to figure out how to best adopt the criteria:

Even if they have to come out with a standard, I’ve asked them to consider a delay in implementation because I believe if they get adopted by EPA, Florida is going to be left in a really difficult situation. Because by law, we cannot implement federal standards without doing our own administrative process. … It leaves us in an awkward position where we can’t implement the federal standard immediately. …

I’ve also been meeting with the stakeholders to try to explain that when it happens, there’s not an instantaneous need to meet the standard. We’re going to work hard to figure out a time-frame to come into compliance. …

It’s still going to be an impact that’s going to cost money. But as I said before … Florida was moving down a path to have numeric nutrient criteria. We’re moving down a path to clean up impaired waters. It’s just a matter of the scale and the schedule, I think.

Drew seemed slightly tougher on industry when asked about another problem affecting the St. Johns — the construction of a pipeline to reroute waste produced by a Georgia Pacific mill from Rice Creek to the St. Johns:

Rice Creek, I think, is in trouble and we need to deal with that in some way. We have some really tough decisions to make in Florida related to permitting industrial facilities. The state has really grown up around industrial facilities that have been there for a long time, including pulp and paper mills. … We have a handful of them in Florida. They’re usually located on water, they’re usually located in the middle of nowhere until a city comes along and builds up to them. And they employ a lot of people. And so we have this balance issue we have to strike. …We want to protect, preserve, enhance, but we also want to have a place for people to work.

Read in full or download Nelson’s letter:

Bill Nelson Letter to Lisa Jackson

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