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Rooney Favors Polluters Over People

Martin County Democrats

With a six-line amendment, Rooney aims to undo years of water-quality work

By Eve Samples
TCPalm Posted February 16, 2011

For more than a decade, clean-water advocates have been fighting to get the federal government to limit pollution flowing into Florida's waterways.

They were tired of fish kills and algae blooms, so they sued the federal government in an attempt to make it enforce the Clean Water Act.

As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency finally set specific limits on nutrient pollution last year.

And this week, U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney did his part to derail the advocates' work.

There was no announcement from Rooney's office, no press release to boast of the proposal.

Rooney simply filed a six-line amendment to a congressional appropriations bill to block the tougher water quality standards. It would prohibit the EPA from implementing the very pollution rules that groups including the Sierra Club and Florida Wildlife Federation have been fighting for.

"His message to the waterways is 'drop dead,' " said Andrew McElwaine, president of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, another group that has been pushing for the standards.

McElwaine said it was particularly surprising since Rooney's district includes the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, two of the most imperiled in the state.

"If you were to pick a congressional district to be a problem for nutrient pollution his would be pretty high on your list," McElwaine said.

The Martin County Health Department warned people to stay out of the St. Lucie River last summer, when enteric bacteria levels became too high (an indication of possible sewage pollution) and blue-green algae blooms were reported (an indication of high nutrient levels).

A large fish kill near the Sebastian Inlet this month was blamed on low oxygen levels in the water (something linked to high nutrient levels).

Phosphorus and nitrogen are among Florida's most prevalent form of water pollution. They come from fertilizer, manure and sewage, and the new EPA rules — known as numeric nutrient criteria — would require polluters to remove those nutrients before releasing back into waterways.

Water treatment plants would be directly affected, and that means residents could see an increase in water bills. The EPA estimates the rules would could cost residents an extra 11 to 20 cents a day per household.

"Florida can't afford to not do this," said George Jones, head of the local advocacy group the Indian Riverkeeper.

But Rooney disputes the science EPA used to develop the standards and questions the costs. He is backed by a large group of business interests, including the Florida Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association, Indian River Citrus League, U.S. Sugar and the Florida Pest Management Association.

They say Florida's agricultural community will lose $1.5 billion annually because of the standards.

When I contacted Rooney's office about the amendment, his spokesman e-mailed me a statement.

"Congressman Rooney is committed to clean water in Florida, which is why he is opposed to this flawed, unscientific process and has filed an amendment that will force EPA to chart a new, reasonable path forward that is grounded in sound science," it read.

Local cattleman Rick Hartman and Toby Overdorf, owner of the consulting firm Crossroads Environmental, called me Wednesday to defend Rooney's amendment.

Overdorf said the EPA rules treat Florida's diverse waterways with the same regulations. That doesn't make sense to him. Hartman said the EPA was rushing unsound regulations through.

Here's the problem, though: Water quality standards never seem to be enforced unless there's some sense of urgency.

Florida has been mulling numeric limits on nutrient pollution since 1998, when the EPA ordered states to set such limits.

The 2009 settlement between the environmental groups and the EPA finally set the stage for enforcement.

Rooney's amendment, which is expected to come up for a vote later this week, stands to yank it off the stage.

Eve Samples is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects her opinion. For more on Martin County topics, follow her blog at TCPalm.com/samples. Contact her at 772-221-4217 or eve.samples@scripps.com.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Martin County Democratic Executive Committee has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Martin County Democratic Executive Committee endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)