Relying on clean water
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 18, 2001
A federal agency had some reasonable advice for Florida on its controversial experiment to pump polluted water into the aquifer. Rather than pass a new law that would allow it throughout the state, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection should consider requests on a case-by-case basis by granting variances to existing regulations.
That would give the state time to test the aquifer storage-and-recovery process and to determine where, if anywhere, it poses little risk to the state's water supply. The letter from the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency even offered assistance. "We are committed to working with you throughout this process," it concluded.
Gov. Jeb Bush's reply came in a nine-page letter to his brother, President George W. Bush, that attacked the federal regulatory process in general and EPA in particular. Gov. Bush called the EPA's insistence that water be cleaned up before it is pumped into the aquifer "nonsensical." The governor then requested this of his brother: "Specifically, it would be beneficial if you would encourage your new managers at EPA to meet with states early and often for the expressed purpose of determining how the agency can assist states in executing their agendas."
So that's why the EPA exists! To give states cover for their risky experiments on the environment.
While cooperation with states is one of the EPA's jobs, its primary duty is to enforce environmental protection laws passed by Congress. The EPA has authority under the Safe Drinking Water Act to protect drinking water and its sources, such as Florida's aquifer. If the president follows up on his brother's request, however, it could silence the EPA in its vital watchdog role. Although President Bush has not commented on the letter, Gov. Bush said his brother has sent a copy to all of his department heads.
That is bad news for Floridians. Both the state Senate and House have passed aquifer storage-and-recovery bills, and they could soon send one to the governor to sign. Under that law, utilities could pump surface water contaminated with fecal coliform (from human and animal wastes) into the aquifer for later use. State DEP Secretary David Struhs says the bacteria and other harmful organisms would die off in the aquifer, although that theory has yet to be proved.
The state wants to use the law to provide water for restoring the Everglades. Aquifer storage is cheaper than the above-ground alternative. It might work in South Florida, where the aquifer is already tainted by salt water, but not in other parts of the state.
Which leads us back to the EPA's recommendation: " "Raw' water ASR (aquifer storage and recovery) projects need to be initiated from the pilot project level and developed incrementally from each successfully completed stage. Once the technology is proven, then Florida can determine whether legislation or a rule change is an appropriate vehicle to implement ASR."
That sounds like helpful advice Gov. Bush, Secretary Struhs and the Legislature should have heeded. Instead, the governor is seeking his brother's help to keep the EPA from doing its job. If he succeeds, the losers could be the Florida aquifer and the 16-million residents who rely on it for clean water.
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