How safe is Florida’s drinking water?
The agency charged with protecting it says it’s very safe, especially with the approval this week of a new rule that imposes limits on 39 additional toxins and updates the allowed limits on 43 other chemicals dumped into Florida’s rivers, streams and coastal waters.
“Each and every criterion protects Floridians, according to both EPA and the World Health Organization,” the Department of Environmental Regulation said last week after the governor’s Environmental Regulation Commission approved the new water quality rule on a narrow 3-2 vote.
But environmentalists are so convinced that Florida’s water will be further harmed, they are ready to go to war.
They say that new rules allow for higher levels of carcinogens and chemicals that can disrupt natural hormones to be discharged into Florida waters than current standards. They claim that weak enforcement by the Department of Environmental Protection already fails to shield Florida’s drinking water from infiltration by health-harming contaminants and, if the new rules are approved by the federal government, more clean-up will be needed.
“That policy now says that more Floridians are expendable to cancer and other serious health diseases in order for industries to be more profitable,” said Linda Young, executive director of the Florida Clean Water Network, which tried and failed to get the commission to reject DEP’s proposed rule.
The rule updates the state’s water quality standards for the first time since 1992 by allowing for 23 toxins, including 18 carcinogens, to be discharged from industrial polluters at higher levels into Florida waterways than in the past. The chemicals are among those released by oil and gas drilling companies, dry cleaners, pulp and paper producers, electricity plants, wastewater treatment plants and agriculture.
Chemical discharges into water are regulated at different levels, depending on the types of water bodies. Class I water bodies are those used as drinking water sources and Class III is used for fishing and swimming.
Under the new rules, at least 10 chemicals will now be allowed to be discharged into drinking water sources in amounts that exceed current drinking water standards.
“That means, if the new criteria goes into effect, then those waters could have higher levels of those chemicals than it is legal to send to homes for drinking,” Young said. “So the utilities would have to get those chemicals out before putting it in our tap water.’’
The Clean Water Network, and numerous other environmental groups, are asking the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reject the rule and order the state to revise it.
Florida regulators test the water bodies only once every five years. They allow industries to release toxins into rivers and aquifers daily based on permits. The industries self report to DEP how well they do at meeting the discharge goals allowed by the permits, and the agency orders corrective action if it believes a company has exceeded the allowed chemical discharge.
If the federal Environmental Protection Agency approves the new rules, chemicals such as benzene, beryllium, trichloroethane, dichlorotheylene and at least six other toxins will be allowed into water in rivers, streams and aquifers at levels that are higher than the state currently considers safe for drinking water, agency records show.
If there are more toxins in Florida’s drinking water sources, water utility companies must clean it before they pipe it into people’s homes, said Dee Ann Miller, DEP spokesperson.
“Drinking water facilities are responsible for providing treatment that ensures the water they are providing to their customers meets state and federal drinking water standards,” she said.
Take benzene, for example. The chemical is used as a solvent and degreaser of metals and is often found in oil and gas drilling operations, in gasoline and has been found to get into groundwater from leaking underground petroleum tanks.
The federal government uses two rules to regulate benzene and dozens of other hazardous chemicals in water. One is the Safe Drinking Water Act and the other is the Clean Water Act. EPA’s recommended standard for benzene in tap water is 0, but the maximum level it will allow is .005 micrograms per liter.
Florida has set its benzene standard for drinking water higher than zero but lower than the maximum allowed by EPA. DEP has set the safe standard at .001 micrograms per liter, or .001 parts per million (ppm).
That means that water coming out of your tap must have no more than .001 micrograms of benzene per liter “to reduce the risk of cancer or other adverse health effects which have been observed in humans and laboratory animals,” DEP says.
Under the federal Clean Water Act standards, benzene and other chemicals are allowed at higher levels — ranging from a low of .58 micrograms per liter to 21 micrograms per liter, said Miller.
The current law allows for 1.18 micrograms of benzene per liter in Class I waters and the new rules would double that level to 2 micrograms per liter, forcing water companies to clean it even more than they currently do.
Bart Bibler, a former water regulator at DEP and former bureau chief of the water program at the Department of Health, warns that while the new regulations assume that water utilities will remove the higher levels of chemicals from Florida waters, there is nothing that protects the 4 million Floridians who rely on private water wells. which rely primarily on surface water and groundwater for their tap water.
“These wells aren’t tested, they’re essentially unregulated,” Bibler said. “Nobody is notifying them to be on alert that the chemical compounds are increasing, and they are expensive to test. People presume the groundwater is good enough.”
DEP, which rushed the rule through last week when the ERC remained two members short, stands by its proposal.
“DEP and EPA are strengthening Florida’s water quality standards, not weakening them,” DEP said in a question and answer statement released after the vote last week.
Environmentalists remain unconvinced.
“Yes they were weakened in that the new criteria allows higher pollution levels than the previous ones did,” responded the Clean Water Network in a detailed rebuttal to DEP’s statement. “The DEP could have set criteria for those that didn’t have any without weakening 23 of the current standards in place.”