By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
Florida’s rivers, streams, lakes and coastal waters face a dramatic increase in the level of toxic chemicals that cause cancer and other serious illnesses under a proposal by the pro-business administration of Gov. Rick Scott to water down state environmental protections.
That’s the warning from a coalition of activists and scientists about a proposal by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] to allow corporations to dump higher levels of dangerous contaminants into public waterways than state rules now allow.
“The department is taking us backward,” Florida Clean Water Network founder Linda Young told FloridaBulldog,org. “[The new rules] will make our waters more polluted. It is really bad policy that is of no benefit to the taxpayers and the public.”
The proposal would recalculate the parts per billion limits for 82 toxic chemicals designated as human health hazards. State law allows industrial waste to include these chemicals as long as they are under the limits set by DEP.
State officials, however, flatly reject the environmentalists’ concerns that those higher limits pose a threat to all Floridians.
“Depictions that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is weakening water quality protection and endangering Floridians is false,” said agency spokeswoman Lori Elliott. “The proposed criteria were based solely on scientifically sound and verifiable information and variables, and are protective of human health even in the most extreme cases.”
The impasse illuminates a long-running battle that environmentalists and preservationists have waged against the administration of Gov. Scott, which recently came under fire over the state’s handling of Lake Okeechobee discharges that sent billions of gallons of toxic polluted rainwater into the Atlantic earlier this year.
Michelle Gale, a former psychologist who lives in Coconut Creek, is an activist for the national anti-fracking organization Food and Water Watch, said Scott has effectively neutered DEP’s enforcement powers. “Since Gov. Scott got into office, he has really gutted DEP,” Gale said. “He has put in people who do his bidding. We have to keep fighting and fighting them.”
Lauren Schenone, Scott’s deputy press secretary, declined comment.
The state’s environmental protection department last updated the list of regulated toxic chemicals in 1992. “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] has been doing it more frequently, most recently a year ago,” Young said. “Florida DEP had been stalling.”
Out of 120 toxic chemicals the federal agency recommended regulations for, Florida only has restrictions on 43. Under the new plan, DEP would add 39 more toxic chemicals to the list. The DEP’s Elliott insisted Florida has some of the most stringent regulations in the nation.
“In fact, we are increasing protection by proposing to nearly double the number of regulated chemicals to better protect Floridians and visitors from exposure to contaminants,” Elliott said. “In addition to adding criteria for 39 chemicals that currently have no regulations, DEP is also updating 43 existing criteria to incorporate the latest national science for the protection of public health.”
However, draft language of DEP’s updated Human Health-Based Water Quality Criteria shows the department is raising the caps on a majority of the regulated toxic chemicals that can be released into surface waters. Young said DEP has ignored concerns raised by scientists and activists at three public workshops held in May. The department has until September to finalize the new criteria.
For instance, the current limit for the chemical benzene, a carcinogen that can cause vomiting, convulsions and loss of consciousness to people exposed to high levels, is 1.18 parts per billion. Under DEP’s updated criteria, the cap would be three parts per billion. The federal standard is 1.14 parts per billion.
Some chemicals, like arsenic, would remain at a current level of 10 parts per billion. But that’s still 1,000 times higher than what the federal government recommends as an allowable limit, Young said.
She also noted that DEP’s new rules don’t address several dozen unregulated toxic compounds, including dioxin, a byproduct of pulp and paper mills that has contaminated such places as the Fenholloway River in Taylor County. Short-term exposure to dioxin may result in skin lesions and a breakdown in liver function, while long-term exposure can impair the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions, environmentalists say.
“DEP’s approach allows us to take into consideration the characteristics of all Floridians,” Elliott said. “This is a much more sophisticated and comprehensive analytical method that allows us to generate criteria to protect all Floridians including small children and people who eat more seafood than average.”
Young disagreed. “It is not going to protect us,” she said. “They want to justify having the weakest standards as possible.”