Judge: EPA Consent Decree for Florida Waters Stands

A federal judge in Tallahassee on Monday approved the consent decree that requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set legal limits for the widespread nutrient contamination that triggers algae blooms in Florida waters.

Ruling from the bench, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle rejected arguments made by polluters who sought to delay cleanup. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, the Florida Pulp and Paper Association, four of the state's five water management districts, sewage plant operators, the Florida Farm Bureau, and opposed the settlement, which was triggered after five environmental groups filed a lawsuit 13 months ago.

The public interest law firm Earthjustice filed the suit in the Northern District of Florida on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. John's Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club in July 2008. The suit challenged an unacceptable decade-long delay by the state and federal governments in setting limits for nutrient pollution.

According to an Earthjustice press release, EPA will now begin the process of imposing quantifiable -- and enforceable -- water quality standards to tackle nutrient pollution, using data collected by the Florida Department of Environmental Proteciton (DEP).

A 2008 DEP report concluded that half of the state's rivers and more than half of its lakes had poor water quality. The problem is compounded when nutrient-poisoned waters are used as drinking water sources. Disinfectants like chlorine and chloramine can react with the dissolved organic compounds, contaminating drinking water with harmful chemical byproducts.

Exposure to these blue-green algae toxins – when people drink the water, touch it, or inhale vapors from it -- can cause rashes, skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions, gastrointestinal upset, serious illness, and even death. In June 2008, a water treatment plant serving 30,000 Florida residents was shut down after a toxic blue-green algae bloom on the Caloosahatchee River threatened the plant's water supply.

"Asking for clean water is not a stretch," said St. Johns Riverkeeper Neil Armingeon. "There are algae blooms even today in the St. Johns River. Moving forward quickly is imperative."

EPA originally gave Florida a 2004 deadline to set limits for nutrient pollution, which the state failed to meet. The agency was then supposed to set the limits but failed to do so. Under the administration of President George W. Bush,EPA allowed the state to formulate plans without deadlines for action.

EPA's agreement to set enforceable nutrient limits is available here.

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