Early last month, Florida sued the US Environmental Protection Agency in an effort to block new clean water regulations that the agency announced last month and which it plans to begin enforcing in 2012. The main opponents of the regulations are agricultural businesses and certain municipal utilities; although not mentioned specifically in the lawsuit, Florida’s citrus industry has voiced objections to the regulations.
The lawsuit, filed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, accuses the EPA of undermining Florida’s state rights and placing an unfair economic burden on Florida’s taxpayers and agricultural business. Additionally, the state alleges that the rules are arbitrary and lack scientific justification; the lawsuit also points out that the new rules imposed by the EPA do not apply to any other state but Florida. Florida’s Attorney General Bill McCollum said that consequently, he expects other local government agencies and private individuals and companies will file similar lawsuits in the near future.
After filing the lawsuit, Attorney General McCollum stated that the EPA is “picking on Florida” and that, while the sunshine state is “happy [to be] the focus of some attention, this is… a whole lot more” than is justified. Unfortunately, the Attorney General’s comments – which seem more appropriate for a Middle School lunchroom argument than a federal court case- are somewhat misleading: 13 other states have voluntarily adopted measures similar to those created by the EPA to protect and enhance water quality in Florida.
The water quality regulations being challenged are the result of an earlier court case in which five environmental groups sued the EPA, charging that the agency was not controlling agricultural runoff and effluent from sewage treatment plants. The claimants in that case said that nutrients from the aforementioned sources were causing algal blooms that were beginning to suffocate Florida’s waterways. Algal blooms not only have dire ecological and public health consequences, environmental groups pointed out, but also were becoming detrimental to the state’s tourism industry and property values. A subsequent study by the EPA estimated that almost 2,000 miles of rivers and streams (in addition to many lakes and estuaries) in Florida have been negatively affected by nutrient pollution.
Eventually, the Tallahassee court ruled in favor of the environmental groups and required the EPA to regulate the main sources of nutrient pollution. David Guest, a lawyer that represented the environmental groups in the earlier case, recently said that the new lawsuit filed against the EPA is merely rehashing the issues raised in the first case. The rules being challenged assign numeric criteria to Florida’s old descriptive regulations for determining nutrient pollution of waterways. These regulations were announced in November 2010 but have a 15-month lag for implementation.
Opponents argue that compliance with the new regulations will cost billions of dollars, an economic burden that Florida, facing record-high rates of unemployment and home foreclosures, cannot handle. Proponents of the new rules, however, point out that a majority of the 80 million tourists who visit Florida each year do so to enjoy its beaches, waterways, and famous Everglades wildlife refuge. Bringing in $60 billion per year, tourism is Florida’s largest industry, accounting for 21% of the state’s total sales taxes and employing over 1 million Floridians. Viewed from this economic angle, it would seem that Florida’s government and citizens would be more willing to pay to protect and improve threatened waterways.
Another key contributor to the state’s economy, however, will face economic hardship if the regulations are enforced in 2012. Florida’s $9 billion-a-year citrus industry has been a leading critic of the EPA’s nutrient pollution abatement program, claiming that the compliance costs to farmers would be both unfair and injuriously high. Such claims have been supported by the FL Attorney General’s office, which stated that “studies produced by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services… show that the impact to Florida’s economy will be in the billions”. EPA officials, however, estimate that compliance costs will be no more than $206 million per year and say that Florida’s estimates are inaccurate and exaggerated.
EPA Regional Administrator Gwen Keyes-Fleming also pointed out that while the agency had considered economic interests, public hearings revealed strong support for cleaning up waterways, which eventually eclipsed competing economic considerations. While the combined vocalization of industries and government officials who support them often garner enough media attention that their stance may be seen as indicative of public opinion, this is not always true. The public hearings conducted by the agency should serve as a reminder that public opinion regarding environmental issues does not always align with that of elected officials.
As lawsuits become an increasingly common form of environmental policy-making (and policy-blocking), this tension between public support and industry interests is important to keep in mind. Furthermore, Florida’s lawsuit against the EPA demonstrates the inefficiency inherent in this form of environmental policy making: when a court makes a ruling on one case, those dissatisfied with the decision can simply file what is essentially a counter lawsuit. This process, in addition to being wildly expensive and frustrating, holds little promise for moving away from environmentally destructive status quos.