A U.S. district judge ruled today that that the state of Florida has failed in its requirement to protect the water quality of Everglades marshes. According to Judge Alan Gold, the state is “unwilling or unable to issue permits in compliance with the” Clean Water Act.

In the judgment released today, Gold acknowledged that nutrient contamination in the Everglades was an enormous problem that had been ignored even by regulatory agencies. In his judgment, Gold wrote that Florida has failed to meet even federal minimums of water quality standards under the Clean Water Act.

“What … is clear is that the State of Florida and the South Florida Water Management District (‘SFWMD’), notwithstanding protests to the contrary, have not been true stewards of protecting the Everglades in recent years,” reads Gold’s ruling.

In a press release, the environmental group Friends of the Everglades said that this failure is a direct result of state environmental agencies siding with industry instead of looking out for the environment they are charged with protecting:

This has been called the “race to the bottom” where State’s compete with each other to have the worst water quality thereby making it make it cheaper for polluters to do business in the state. This was why Congress passed these national environmental laws in the first place. To stop the race to the bottom.

Florida political officials, including Governor Rick Scott, appear blinded to the fact that the State itself is substantially to blame for the decades of accumulated costs, for failure to require the polluter to pay. Friends agrees that EPA, rejuvenated under President Obama, can step in decisively. We deplore the efforts by polluters to hobble the only federal agency with the authority and mandate to fix what is wrong with the Everglades.

Gold’s ruling, though stern, is a wake-up call to agencies that have not done enough to protect such an important environmental resource.

“I could not have said it clearer in my April 14, 2010 Order that I enjoined FDEP from certain conduct and required the EPA to direct FDEP to undertake certain processes to achieve compliance with the water quality standards under the Clean Water Act,” wrote Gold. “I unequivocally ordered the EPA to direct the State to take specific action. The State’s response was to assert that it cannot take the action as required and thus, to fail to fully comply with my prior Orders. Accordingly, now I must further use the equitable inherent powers as described infra and in my prior orders to put into the EPA’s hands the steps to move forward.”

Gold went on to say that, should the agencies fail to enforce water quality standards, the Everglades could eventually cease to exist:

The roots of the ongoing and enduring Everglades litigation originate from a period of over one quarter century ago. This represents a serious need for the parties in this action—as well as non-parties with substantial interests in the future of the Everglades—to stop delaying. It is now, and has been for a while, time to take concrete and substantial progress toward preserving the Everglades before this national treasure is permanently destroyed to the extent of irreparable destruction.

Gold’s ruling states that both the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA are to submit a “Joint Notice of Compliance specifically detailing the steps that have been taken in accordance with the instant Order, the Amended Determination, and the Court’s prior orders” no later than July 1, 2011.

The case may now move to an Atlanta federal appeals court, which would determine if Gold’s ruling could stand.

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