Despite the ongoing Florida water quality emergency —a deluge of toxic green sludge coating the Treasure Coast — Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is proposing a rule to ease restrictions on toxic chemicals in our surface waters, and the rule will have direct impact on our health.
The Environmental Regulation Commission (ERC), a seven-member committee appointed by the governor and tasked with setting standards and rules to protect Florida’s citizens and waterways, is considering adopting a new rule, proposed by DEP, that would allow higher limits for dozens of cancer-causing chemicals.
Although DEP provided the public with fewer than 30 days to comment on this highly technical rule, some groups have already made their opposition clear. The Florida chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a national health association, recently “oppos[ed] any rulemaking that would increase the current allowable limits of toxic compounds discharged into the state’s [waters],” noting that the “compounds proposed for regulation include known human carcinogens and endocrine disruptors.”
Carcinogens include benzene, which DEP’s proposed rule changes would allow to increase by a factor of three in our water. The rule changes would also allow dramatic increases in allowable limits of perchloroethylene — the toxin implicated in the infamous Camp Lejeune Cancer Cluster, where U.S. service members developed cancer after drinking water contaminated with this carcinogen.
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Concerned Floridians are asking how and why Governor Scott’s DEP can propose to loosen the regulations of cancer-causing agents in our waterways.
The how is simple: DEP is utilizing different models for calculating cancer risk than the methods used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and every other state in the nation. Furthermore, Gov. Rick Scott’s DEP is accepting the likelihood that more Florida citizens might develop cancer with these new exposure limits, using a carcinogenic “chemical risk calculation” that is 10 times (or sometime 100 times) higher than the current rule allows.
In other words, where the existing regulations accept the risk that toxic exposure levels might cause cancer in 1 in a million people, DEP’s proposed rule changes would allow that number to rise for some risk groups to 1 in 100,000 people, or, in some cases, even 1 in 10,000. The risk factors increase for people who eat Florida-caught seafood more than once per week, and even more so for subsistence fishermen who might eat seafood daily, because the chemicals that accumulate in fish or shellfish are passed along to humans who consume them.
Aside from increasing our cancer risk, allowing higher carcinogen levels in our water, and thus in our fish, will hurt the market for Florida seafood, deterring the public from choosing “Fresh from Florida” shellfish and fish.
As for the why, many of the toxic compounds currently under review are, not coincidentally, the very same chemicals commonly used in fracking and other polluting industries. Although some 50 Florida counties and cities have banned fracking, Tallahassee has tried several times to preempt these bans.
Critically, the body that will ultimately decide whether to adopt or reject DEP’s proposed rule changes, the ERC, is currently missing appointees in two of its seven seats — the environment seat and the local government seat— the former being vacant for more than a year. These vacancies stifle the voices of local communities and environmentalists and prevent these interests from being represented. Governor Bob Graham and 50 environmental groups recently sent Governor Scott a letter in June, urging him to fill these two seats before the ERC’s critical vote on the DEP’s rule changes. Governor Scott conspicuously ignored their request and a week later, pushed the ERC vote forward from a date in “early fall” to July 26th, the same day as a much-publicized meeting on the outflows from Lake Okeechobee that caused the Treasure Coast catastrophe. This convenient double-booking has raised concerns that the State is attempting to limit the attendance of environmentalists and community stakeholders — many of whom will be attending the Okeechobee hearing — at the ERC deliberation. Furthermore, none of the three workshops that DEP held about the rule change were located south of Stuart, leaving South Floridians in the dark in the Sunshine State.
In response, local elected officials State Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, County Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, Mayors Philip Stoddard and Cindy Lerner, and City Commissioner Ken Russell, have sent a letter to DEP Secretary Steverson asking to postpone this meeting until the vacant ERC seats are filled and public hearings are held in south Florida, and to grant more time for public comment.
If this summer’s green slime disaster has taught us anything, it’s how fragile and precious clean water is for our state. Clean water is too important for Florida, and of course, nothing is more important than our health. When dealing with toxic and harmful chemicals, the State’s priority should be protecting our public health and prosperity and ensuring swimmable, drinkable, fishable water for all Floridians.
Rachel Silverstein is Executive Director and Waterkeeper, Miami Waterkeeper.