EPA must protect Florida’s waters

Miami Herald Editorial Board

A view of the Kissimmee River. The total length of all the waterways in Florida is more than 11,000 miles.
A view of the Kissimmee River. The total length of all the waterways in Florida is more than 11,000 miles.

A state panel that’s supposed to safeguard our waterways failed Floridians last week by approving an increase in the levels of carcinogens anyone can dump in them.

Even by the disappointing environmental standards of Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, this is an egregious betrayal of the public trust that the federal government must reject.

Tuesday’s action by the Environmental Regulation Commission is incomprehensible.

Under the guise of a long overdue “update” to meet requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, the panel voted to increase the amount of some known cancer-causing chemicals in state rivers, streams, estuaries, etc. The decision defies common sense and the mandate to protect the public.

The overhaul approved by the regulators imposes standards on 39 chemicals not currently regulated by the state and revises regulations on 43 other toxins, most of which are carcinogens.

Restrictions were tightened for 13 currently regulated chemicals.

But here’s the problem: The new rule raises the allowable limits for more than two dozen currently regulated chemicals, including known carcinogens such as benzene, which happens to be a byproduct of fracking. This opens the door for a controversial method of oil exploration that 32 counties in Florida have passed laws or resolutions against.

The state says its proposed rule change is science based, but environmental advocates vigorously contest that. They say Florida relies on a different model to calculate cancer risk than the one used by other states. Where existing rules accept the risk that toxic exposure might cause cancer in 1 in a million people, the change allows the risk to increase for some groups to 1 in 100,000 people, or, in some cases, even 1 in 10,000. The risk is more for people who consume Florida-caught seafood more than once a week.

The way this action came about should also outrage anyone who lives in this state.

First, after the initial outcry from the public, the Department of Environmental Regulation, which made the proposal in the first place, moved up the vote from September to July 26 without offering any reason why. That gave the public less time to become aware of the impending move and weigh in.

Second, no public hearings were held in South Florida, where some of the state’s strongest clean-water advocates are found and where the strongest impact may be felt.

Gov. Scott further limited public input by failing to fill the two seats on the seven-member commission reserved for a representative from the environmental community and from local government. That left only five members. The new rule was approved 3-2. One of the No votes was cast by Adam Gelber of Miami Beach, who represents science and technical interests on the panel.

On this one, state government badly botched its mission to protect our water. That leaves it up to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, whose approval is required before any of these proposed changes take effect.

We urge the EPA to allow a well-publicized comment period so that Floridians can express their concerns, and to carefully evaluate all the proposed human health criteria. If they do, we feel confident that the agency will come to the only logical conclusion to protect the health of Floridians by rejecting the weaker water quality standards.