Politics

Toxic water rule delayed after Seminole Tribe sues

In this February file photo, Gov. Rick Scott talks with James Billie, Seminole Tribe of Florida chairman, at the tribe’s headquarters. The tribe is suing the state over new rules on toxin levels in drinking water.
In this February file photo, Gov. Rick Scott talks with James Billie, Seminole Tribe of Florida chairman, at the tribe’s headquarters. The tribe is suing the state over new rules on toxin levels in drinking water. AP

Florida environmentalists are hoping that a legal challenge by the Seminole Tribe of Florida will provide the catalyst to force state regulators to redo a controversial rule that raises the levels of some of the toxins allowed to be dumped into Florida’s drinking waters.

The Seminole Tribe filed the challenge Monday with the state Division of Administrative Hearings, arguing that that the new Human Health Toxics Criteria Rule, which was narrowly approved by the Environmental Regulation Commission two weeks ago, could endanger their health.

The lawsuit effectively delays the ability of state regulators to submit the rule to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for approval. It also gives environmentalists more time to pressure Gov. Rick Scott and state regulators to fix what they consider flaws in the rule.

“This rule will not reach EPA for many months now,”' said Linda Young, president of the Florida Clean Water Network in a letter to supporters. “Our focus will be on getting the public educated on what’s happening and getting people to speak out against increasing toxic chemicals in our waters and the fish we eat.”

In the meantime, Young said, her group will continue to put pressure on Scott and Department of Environmental Protection leaders to “fix the flaws that surround the rule.”

They are asking that the governor appoint three new commissioners to the seven-member ERC board. There are currently two vacancies on the board, one intended for a representative of the environmental community and another for a representative of local government. Young said they also want Scott to replace commission member Craig Varn, the former DEP general counsel who was appointed to the board by the governor in March to serve as a “ay person.”

“He is a plant, a ringer,”' Young said.

The group is also demanding that more public workshops be held around the state to increase the public’s awareness of the controversial proposal. DEP conducted workshops on the proposal rule, but not in South Florida.

The tribe argued that the rule should be invalidated not only because the agency”s decision to move up the scheduled date of the ERC vote violated the required 28-day hearing notice, but because it “adversely affects the Seminole Tribe and its members.”

The lawsuit says that the tribe members “hunt and fish on thousands of acres of Florida's waterways,” and the new rule, which allows for some toxins to be allowed in greater concentrations into Florida's rivers and streams, fails to take into account the harm they could do to the health of the tribe's “subsistence” fishermen, who rely on fish from Florida’s rivers and streams as a primary source of protein.

“The technical supporting document for this rule is devoid of any consideration of tribal fish consumption rates for subsistence purposes. The Seminole Tribal members’ subsistence consumption rate is over 140 grams of fish per week,” the legal complaint says. “That is 5 times greater than the consumption rate used for the proposed rule.”

A hearing was quickly set in the case for Sept. 6 and 7, and environmentalists hope the judge will either order the Department of Environmental Protection to reverse the rule, or order a new hearing to revise it.

The rule was scheduled to be submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for approval, but DEP said Thursday it cannot submit the rule until the lawsuit is resolved.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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