The federal government ordered tough water pollution rules for Florida on Friday in a victory for environmental groups after a lengthy court battle.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson filed a notice in federal court in Tallahassee saying she has complied with a consent decree requiring adoption of the rules.
They are designed to curtail pollution from such sources as fertilizer, animal waste and, sewage effluent that have been blamed for causing toxic, slimy algae blooms that have choked Florida's waterways. The blooms can kill fish and make people sick.
State officials as well as agriculture, business and utility interests opposed the rules, arguing they'd be too expensive to implement. They had touted an alternate proposal offered by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which environmentalists said was too weak.
"This is absolutely everything we hoped for," said Earthjustice lawyer David Guest, who represented environmental groups in the court case. "This is the reddest letter day of them all."
Ryan Banfill, spokesman for a coalition opposed to the federal rule, said he hadn't seen anything and so couldn't say much until the EPA's action can be reviewed.
"Our diverse coalition of agriculture, employers, local government, utilities and others supports clean water and believes Florida knows what's best for Florida," Banfill wrote in an email. "That's why the coalition has always supported Florida-specific standards developed by Florida scientists and proposed by the state DEP as a more cost effective way to promote water quality in our state."
An EPA spokesman declined to comment on the record.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle had pushed back the deadline for action several times since the consent decree was signed three years ago, but when he ordered a six-month extension in June he said it would be the last delay.
The June order reset the deadline for Friday. EPA last week asked for another delay of 120 days to continue talks with state officials on their alternative proposal, but Jackson filed her notice after Hinkle took no action on the latest request for more time.
The notice will trigger the establishment of numeric nutrient criteria for some 100,000 miles of Florida waterways and 4,000 square miles of estuaries. Standards previously had been set for lakes and springs.
Guest said the case has national implications because most states, like Florida, currently have only vague standards. Putting numbers on how much pollution is allowed is expected to greatly strengthen enforcement.
"EPA's response here will set the standard for the nation," Guest said. "What we've lacked is a set of quantifiable numbers that are basically a speed limit sign to make the law clear and enforceable."
The Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southeast Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. Johns Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club sued EPA.
They alleged the agency had failed to enforce its own regulations requiring states to establish numeric criteria for such nutrients as nitrogen and phosphorus.