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    A Times Editorial

    Loopholes for polluters

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published September 15, 2001

    Florida has rewritten its clean-water plan in a way that benefits big polluters. Not only will the degradation of lakes and rivers be harder to stop, but the polluters will have it easier sidestepping responsibility for the damage they've caused to public property. Florida needs to expand the criteria for lakes and rivers to make the state's impaired-waters list.

    The list is important, for it determines which waterways may be protected by strict pollution discharge limits. It also acts as a compass for guiding public money toward cleanup and conservation efforts. The state Department of Environmental Protection says the new rules are designed to help eliminate the number of "marginally" polluted lakes and rivers from the state's list, thereby freeing the limited resources of government to focus on the worst of the worst. Yet in reality the rules will accelerate that slide, while easing the pressure on heavy industry to adopt better practices and pollution-control equipment.

    Polluters will have a field day with the loopholes. Waterways won't make the list if the pollution was caused, in part, by heavy rains; if "reasonable assurance" exists that new pollution-control technology could lessen the problem; or if the waterway was expected to improve in the near future. Sewage spills would not be considered, nor would the dumping of medical wastes. Companies could violate their discharge permits; plant pipes could break -- neither would land a waterway on the state's polluted list.

    In short, it's more difficult to make the list and less important if you do. Between 200 and 300 waterways -- a third or more of the 1998 list -- could be dropped.

    The whole purpose of a polluted-waters list is to draw public attention to the scope of the problem. No one expects every dirty waterway to be included, or that every cleanup will be fully funded. But DEP's new rules make the exercise moot. Ignoring pollution won't make it go away. The rules build a fire wall for heavy polluters. DEP is helping utilities, pulp and paper mills and other industries avoid blame. Those concessions are inappropriate; the state's job is to regulate. They also give big polluters an opening to litigate, which could delay for months or years protection against dumping in some troubled waters.

    Environmentalists are challenging the rule in a proceeding before a state administrative judge. DEP should not need a legal finding to realize the rule is weak, vague and counter-productive. There's nothing wrong with wanting to ensure that Florida's polluted waters list is backed up by good science. But in this case, science is fronting a corporate handout.

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