EPA tackles Florida water pollution, cost a concern
MIAMI (Reuters) - The Environmental Protection Agency tightened water pollution controls in recession-hit Florida on Monday, but the state's citrus growers expressed concern the rules would cost business too much.
The final EPA standards set specific numerical limits on nutrient pollution levels allowed in lakes, rivers, streams and springs in a state which relies heavily on tourists who enjoy its waterways and the world-famous Everglades National Park.
This pollution is caused by phosphorous and nitrogen contamination from excess fertilizer, stormwater and wastewater that flows off land into waterways. The EPA estimates nearly 2,000 miles of Florida's rivers and streams, as well as numerous lakes and estuaries, are affected.
Months of debate in public hearings preceded the finalization of the standards, with critics like Florida's $9 billion citrus industry saying their implementation could cost the sector billions of dollars it could not afford.
The EPA estimated the cost of bringing in the new rules would be in the range of $130 million to $200 million.
Announcing the finalized measures, EPA Regional Administrator Gwen Keyes-Fleming said the agency had sought to reconcile competing interests, but there was strong public support for cleaning up Florida's water and waterways.
"What we heard over and over in these public hearings is that the people of Florida know that clean, safe waters are essential to their health and Florida's economic growth," she said in a conference call with reporters.
The new anti-pollution standards will not take effect for 15 months and during that time the EPA would work closely with the state and interested parties on implementation strategies.
Explaining the rules would be flexible, "common sense" and site-specific, Keyes-Fleming said they would help protect hotels and tourist attractions that faced lost revenue through pollution making waterways too foul for swimming or fishing.
Florida's $60 billion-a-year tourism industry is its economic lifeblood and largest industry, with more than 80 million visitors a year bringing in 21 percent of all state sales taxes and employing nearly 1 million Floridians.
Keyes-Fleming added the anti-pollution measures would also help preserve home property values, an important consideration in a state where many own waterside homes and the home foreclosure rate is the second-highest in the United States.
"EXAGGERATED DOOMSDAY CLAIMS"
While stating the EPA had considered concerns over implementation costs, she rejected what she called "exaggerated Doomsday claims from certain interests."
"EPA believes that those that have estimated the cost to be in the billions are substantially overstating both the number of pollution sources that may be affected, as well as the types of treatment that are going to be required," she said.
Florida Citrus Mutual, the state's main citrus growers' association, said it was still evaluating the new EPA rules, but reiterated its worries over the impact on business.
"There is some concern this could have an adverse economic impact on all industries in Florida at a time when the economy is slumping," Michael W. Sparks, the group's executive Vice President and CEO, told Reuters in a statement.
He said while citrus growers understood healthy water was essential for the future of agriculture, "regulators must realize there is a balance that must be attained."
In 2008, the Florida Wildlife Federation filed a lawsuit against the EPA. This resulted is a settlement that required the agency to introduce specific nutrient pollution standards for Florida by November 2010.
(Editing by Doina Chiacu)
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