Florida and the EPA Slammed with Failure to Preserve the Everglades
By Krystina Steffen, staff In Good Practice writer – May 24, 2011
The Everglades are a meandering chain of sawgrass marshes, forested uplands and freshwater ponds that provide a habitat for birds, fish, wildlife, and a diversity of unique plants. The River of Grass, as it is called, is also critical to the state’s tourism industry and the seven million people that rely on it for drinking water. And now it is the battlegrounds of the federal government against the state, as Florida faces allegations of failing to preserve the Everglades’ water quality and overall health.
U.S. District Judge Alan Gold has given the state and the Environmental Protection Agency until July 1 to show what they are doing to reduce pollution as mandated by the federal Clean Water Act.  Nearby sugar farms and agricultural businesses unleash pollutants such as phosphorous and nitrogen as byproducts from fertilizer and farming practices. Sulfate is then used to kill off algae blooms that are created from these chemicals that choke the waterways. But when sulfate combines with other elements in the ecosystem – some natural and some from manmade waste – it creates methylmercury, which drifts into the Everglades vital waterways.  These potent chemicals harm plant populations, create serious neurological and hormone problems in animals, and over time diminish the livelihood of the entire area. 
For more than 25 years, the Everglades have been decreasing in stability as opposing parties duke it out in various courts to protect their special interests. Advocates for the Everglades recently took out full-page ads in the Washington Post and other D.C. newspapers in hopes of President Obama latching onto the fight to save and restore the World Heritage site.
“Big Sugar and the state’s other chronic polluters have lobbied and litigated to delay the cleanup of fertilizer and hazardous toxins,” said the Everglades Foundation in their ad.  “While BP is paying 100 percent of the cost of cleaning up their oil spill, Big Sugar has successfully pushed the cost of cleaning up their pollution onto taxpayers.”
The EPA and state have not enforced tough enough regulations against agricultural back-pumping and chemical treatment, they said. Environmental advocates show that the permit process of discharging chemicals into the state’s coveted waterbody is lax to non-existent. Waste and stormwater treatment areas are not big enough and enforced appropriately to restore the Everglades for future generations to enjoy. Florida Governor Rick Scott asked the EPA to “…drop numeric limits for nutrients such as phosphorous in Florida waterways.”  With lower standards, polluted waterbodies would be deemed safe again and affect upstream waterways by increasing the flow of detrimental chemicals to these areas, say scientists.  Florida also reset deadlines from 2006 to 2016 for its cleanup plan to decrease the harsh levels of the chemical when it amended the Everglades Forever Act several years ago. 
“We don’t have a Silicon Valley,” said former Florida Governor Bob Graham.  “We don’t have a steel or auto industry in Florida. Our economy is so intertwined with our natural resources and our environment that if we allow that to deteriorate, then we’re really sacrificing our future economic growth. The consequence of [downgrading environmental protections] is to go back to the era where we looked at Florida and just said it’s not really worth very much. If we don’t like what it is, let’s change it and let’s put it on the auction block.”
Florida has done so much over the last decades to reshape its image yet it wrestles with this vital wetland area that protects its citizens from deadly hurricanes and provides much needed drinking water, amongst other key reasons to safeguard its viability. “There is no possibility of reversing the damage that has been done to the Everglades, and there is only the chance to preserve what remains in its current state,” said Judge Gold in his 76-page ruling against the EPA and Florida.  “State agencies and water managers have not been true stewards of protecting the Everglades in recent years.”
The state’s Department of Environmental Protection feels differently and is planning an appeal. “The Florida DEP maintains that its permitting actions have been consistent with the Clean Water Act, Florida law and the Court’s earlier order,” said DEP Secretary Michael W. Sole.  “DEP and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have worked in close coordination in establishing water quality standards and issuing permits that are not only in compliance with the Clean Water Act but also are protective of the Everglades. With more than $1.8 billion already invested in water quality improvements, the state has demonstrated unwavering commitment to clean up and restore the Everglades. We remain committed to cooperating and negotiating with our federal partners to build the right suite of projects and implement permits that will bring meaningful progress in restoring the Everglades.”
In 2000, Congress passed the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan to help revitalize the Everglades over the next 30 years via a 50-50 partnership with the state and federal government for funding.  The Everglades, which once covered 11,000 square miles, has been diminished to half the size, and parts of CERP have fallen short of implementation as costs have risen to create a bad-to-worse scenario.  From $200 million in the Jeb Bush years to $50 million and now Rick Scott’s proposed $17 million in funding, the Everglades has become a victim of politics, say Everglades advocates.  In 2010, funding totaled $3.5 billion and no major projects were completed to uphold the Everglade’s ecological needs. 
“Protection of the Everglades requires a major commitment which cannot be simply pushed aside in the face of financial hardships, political opposition, or other excuses,” said Judge Gold.  “These obstacles will always exist, but the Everglades will not – especially if the protracted pace of preservation efforts continues at the current pace.”
With the July 1 deadline looming, the EPA, Florida, and South Florida’s Water Management District are in the hot seat. Advocates say Gold’s ruling is meant to enforce action and timetables that finally will implement remedies to save the Everglade’s livelihood. “Judge Gold’s and the EPA’s actions are not an assault on states’ rights,” said the Friends of the Everglades coalition.  “The EPA is doing what Congress authorized and required it to do – by assuming control over federal permitting when the state is unwilling or unable to issue permits that comply with federal law.”
From the beginning of the 1900s, Florida has grappled with the Everglades as it developed viable farmland and cities. As it struggles today to continue its farming traditions and foster the health of its citizens, wildlife and natural beauty, these prized wetlands will reflect Florida’s and the nation’s sentiments about the environment. Will it become a place of progress or remain in critical condition?
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