EPA To Impose First Phosphorus, Nitrogen Limits In Water

WASHINGTON, DC, US — Imposing the first federal standards for nutrient pollution in the waters of a state, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed placing limits on phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N) in Florida waters, according to Environment News Service. P and N enter waterways from fertilization of crops and livestock manure through stormwater runoff and municipal wastewater treatment.

Up To 36% Of Florida’s Waters Affected
In a statement announcing the proposed action, EPA said nutrient pollution can damage drinking water sources and form byproducts, some of which have been linked with serious human illnesses like bladder cancer. The nutrients also increase harmful algal blooms of toxic microbes that can damage the human nervous system and even cause death, EPA said. Additionally, nutrient problems can degrade lakes, reservoirs, and estuaries, and create hypoxic dead zones where aquatic life can no longer survive. Studies have shown that high levels of N and P in agricultural runoff and stormwater are damaging the Everglades ecosystem.

A 2008 Florida Department of Environmental Protection report assessing the state’s water quality revealed that about 1,000 miles of rivers and streams (16% of the state’s total), 350,000 acres of lakes (36%) and 900 square miles of estuaries (25%) are not meeting water quality standards because of excess nutrients. EPA says the actual number of miles and acres of impaired waters is likely higher, as there are waters that have not yet been tested.

Proposal Limits P And N
The proposed action, developed with state environmental officials, would set a series of numeric limits on the amounts of P and N that would be allowed
in Florida’s surface waters. In January 2009, the EPA determined that numeric nutrient water quality standards in Florida were necessary to meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act, with standards for lakes and flowing waters in Florida to be proposed within 12 months and for estuaries and coastal waters within 24 months. EPA’s proposed action includes a new regulatory process, called restoration standards, for setting standards in a manner that drives water quality improvements in already impaired waters. These standards would be specific to nutrients in the state of Florida.

In August 2009, EPA entered into a consent decree to settle a lawsuit filed by five environmental groups — the Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, and St. Johns Riverkeeper – alleging that EPA “failed to perform a non-discretionary duty to set numeric nutrient criteria for the State of Florida as required by the Clean Water Act.”

Florida Farm Bureau Fights Back
The Florida Farm Bureau Federation (FFBF), which contested the legal action as an intervenor, believes the proposed numeric nutrient standards will damage the state’s fragile economic recovery. FFBF represents 143,000 member families

“A coalition of concerned organizations is urging citizens to contact their elected representatives in Tallahassee and in Washington to alert them that this federal action is unacceptable,” said FFBF President John Hoblick. FFBF and other state growers’ associations along with cattlemen, pulp and paper and stormwater organizations argued before the court that the consent decree is “unreasonable and contrary to the public interest,” protesting that the Florida has suffered greatly in the economic downturn and additional major costs for nutrient treatment “may affect the economic recovery of the state economy and employment in the state.” FFBF argued that “Additional costs placed on Florida dischargers, which are not placed on equivalent dischargers in other states, may affect the ability of Florida to compete and attract new businesses and jobs.” 

Fertilizer Futures

Said a Florida Tax Watch researcher: “Florida, experiencing some of the worst economic conditions in the nation, is not the place to experiment with expensive new requirements, particularly when they are not applied in other parts of the country or in neighboring states.” However, Florida may not be alone in the experiment for long.

The Florida proposals are the first numeric limits in the nation regarding fertilizer runoff into surface waters. It is likely the action could set a precedent, leading to similar federal standards in other states; if their waterways fail to meet requirements under the Clean Water Act, they too could face court proceedings like those brought in Florida by environmentalists who sued EPA.

EPA’s proposal will force federal numeric limits on farmers in Florida; however, several other states have already set their own standards, with others now in the process of developing numeric limits without federal intervention. The remaining states have no standards, or only vague requirements of polluters.

Whether the EPA proposals in Florida will cause a snowball effect rolling in other polluting states remains to be seen; however, the effect of the numeric limits will create more work for farmers to either reduce fertilizer amounts, pay for nutrient treatment or find a way to prevent the excess nutrients from washing away.