During the summer of 2005, Ben Williams, owner of Fishermen’s Dock Seafood in Jacksonville, was grappling with an unusual problem: Though Northeast Florida is home to thousands of species of fish and is well known for its booming shrimp industry, his customers weren’t interested.
“People were coming into my shop, specifically asking for anything not from the area, especially the St. Johns River,” Williams says. The reason? According to Williams, customers were scared by a large-scale toxic algal bloom that had overtaken more than 100 miles of St. Johns. The bloom, dubbed “the green monster,” wasn’t pretty. Nor did it smell good. And consumers were wary.
Algal blooms are standard for warm climates, especially during the summer months. But blooms that stretch for 100 miles? Those are more likely the result of excess phosphorus and nitrogen, nutrients that feed algae and cut off oxygen to other forms of marine life — leading to fish kills, bird deaths, and even human respiratory ailments.
The EPA has estimated that nearly 2,000 miles of the state’s waterways are affected by an excess of nutrients, which is unsurprising considering the lack of standards governing nutrient pollution. Current regulations are based on a “narrative” standard, which simply states that “in no case shall nutrient concentrations of the body of water be altered so as to cause an imbalance in natural populations of flora or fauna.”
Now, a new proposed set of standards to limit the waste entering Florida waterways — dubbed numeric nutrient criteria — have become the source for one of Florida’s fiercest political battles.
Nearly every major political figure and industry group in the state has publicly criticized them. Most of the criteria’s detractors argue that they would be too costly for a state still struggling with the effects of the recession.
But what is the cost of not implementing them?
The refrain from the opposition seems to be that strict regulations will inevitably lead to a negative economic impact. But a recent White House report found that the amount of money spent by businesses in an effort to comply with federal regulatory policies — especially environmental ones — is overshadowed by the economic benefits resulting from those expenditures.
EPA Regional Administrator Gwen Keyes-Fleming has been quoted saying that anti-pollution measures would likely preserve home property values. In a state hit hard by the mortgage crisis (Florida’s foreclosure rate is the highest in the nation), property value is an enormous piece of the economic puzzle.
Tourism makes up another major chunk of Florida’s economy and has a $57 billion impact on Florida’s economy. If the Gulf oil spill was any indication, harshly impaired waters mean fewer tourists, and less money funneled into the state’s economy.
Seafood is another big business in Florida and has been affected by environmental pollution in the past.
When it comes to potentially tainted fish, customers don’t want to risk it. “In the seafood industry, anytime you convince the public that something isn’t safe to eat, they may not even ask to be sure,” says Williams, of Fishermen’s Dock.
Williams testified at the EPA’s hearings on its proposed numeric nutrient criteria, giving a three-minute statement on how integral the seafood industry is to the state of Florida.
“Essentially, I said that, when other industries don’t step up to the plate on water quality, it costs us,” he says. “The fact that utilities and agricultural industries will spend a few more dollars shouldn’t be an impetus to disallowing the criteria altogether. I don’t buy the outrageous figures. We’re talking about protecting state dollars and in some cases, enhancing those dollars.”
Brooks Busey, owner of Sadler Point Marina in Jacksonville, says that his business has also been harshly affected by a lack of nutrient standards in the state.
“I wear two hats — that of a business owner and that of a citizen,” he says. “I think there ought to be standards, but I also want a happy medium. Obviously, high-cost projections are a concern, but I want the river to be healthy. I have something to protect, too, but most of these industrial groups have lobbyists. They can afford to have people work for them. I can’t do that.”
As a fellow small business owner, Williams agrees. He says that recreational and seafood industries can’t suffer for the sake of utilities and agriculture companies that are dissatisfied with the EPA standards: “Protecting water quality so the seafood industry can flourish while other industries continue to stay afloat… the two things aren’t incompatible.”
“When the river smells bad, and the news says to be careful how much time you spend in it, that has an inevitable effect on my business,” Busey says. “People don’t buy boats and they don’t go out on their boats. There is a clear correlation between how pleasant the river is, and how much time people want to spend on it.”
Sarah Bucci, of Environment Florida, says that the new House of Representatives-approved funding bill wages “the biggest assault on Florida’s clean waters in the history of the state.”
Calling political attempts to destroy funding for the EPA “attacks” on the nutrient standards, Bucci says that recent riders aiming to bar the EPA from enforcing the standards only “add more manure to the pile.”
Those efforts have only intensified in recent weeks.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., penned a letter imploring the Senate to include one such rider, sponsored by Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta, on a forthcoming budget resolution. On March 7, a group of Florida’s most powerful industry names, including U.S. Sugar, the Fertilizer Institute, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, sent a letter (.pdf) to Rubio and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., asking them to “introduce and support an amendment in the Senate … that would defund the EPA NNC final rule.”
Environmentalists remain committed to the standards they say could save Florida waterways. “Numeric standards are what we need,” says Jimmy Orth of the St. Johns Riverkeeper, an organization that has seen firsthand the effects of nutrient pollution on the river. “It’s unfortunate that politicians and industry reps are acting like we were blindsided by this. The political grandstanding is frustrating.”
Orth and the Riverkeeper have long been supportive of the nutrient criteria. In fact, the Riverkeeper was one of several groups to file suit against the EPA in the first place, calling for a stricter set of rules to govern Florida waterways.
Many of the Riverkeeper’s detractors have argued that measuring nutrients in loads (TMDLs) is preferable to concentrations (the preferred method of the EPA’s nutrient criteria), but area environmentalists have long argued that loads are simply not effective enough.
“A lot of folks are avoiding the facts. Misinformation is disseminated to the public that the criteria are ‘arbitrary’ and ‘capricious.’” says Orth. “This whole thing goes back to 1998 and is just a matter of the state not following through with keeping pollution in check. The TMDL-measurement was the result of citizens filing suit, much like the nutrient criteria. It’s ironic, too, because a lot of these industries touting the TMDL as a better option were fighting against them originally.”
According to Orth, the cost of doing away with the criteria needs to be further explored.
“There is a cost to all of us,” he says. “A cost to human health, a cost to Florida’s economy. You can’t sell a million-dollar home on the river if the river smells.”