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What would happen to Florida if the EPA really did go away?

By Craig Pittman, Times Staff Writer
Published: February 4, 2017 Updated: February 5, 2017 at 12:23 AM
The Hillsborough Bay near Gibsonton, shown here in 1970 covered in thick, blue-green algae, is similar to what many residents of southeast Florida have seen on Lake Okeechobee. Courtesy of J.O.R. Johannson

For years the Environmental Protection Agency has been depicted as a jackbooted thug, a humorless generator of red tape, even the nefarious villain in such films as The Simpsons Movie and the original Ghostbusters.

Now the agency started by a Republican president, Richard Nixon, faces an uncertain future. The new president who once pledged to eliminate it now promises to refocus it. The man he nominated to be its new leader, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, made his reputation suing it. Meanwhile, a Florida congressman has filed a bill to obliterate it.

Under the bill filed by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, the EPA would cease to exist at the end of 2018.

"They have exceeded their original mission substantially under both Republican and Democratic presidents and violated the sovereignty of the states," Gaetz said in explaining his bill. "I think we need to start fresh."

His bill would leave it to "states and local governments to protect their environmental assets in the absence of federal overreach."

While the Obama-era EPA scored some big successes — for instance, catching Volkswagen cheating on pollution emissions testing — it also angered homebuilding, oil and agriculture interests with a proposed new wetlands protection rule and ticked off utilities with regulations to combat climate change.

What if, like George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life, the nation's top environmental regulatory agency had never existed?

Florida would probably be a much stinkier place, for one thing. Breathing might be difficult in the Tampa Bay area. And going to the beach could endanger your health.

• • •

Nixon created the EPA via executive order in the wake of the first Earth Day protests in 1970, when a tenth of the American population took to the streets to complain about how pollution was wrecking their world.

One prominent example came from Florida. In 1969, Lake Thonotosassa suffered from the largest fish kill ever recorded — 26 million dead fish — because it was so polluted by discharges from four food processing plants.

In the 36 years that followed, the EPA has had its ups and downs in Florida.

In 2000, the agency forced one of the state's biggest polluters, Tampa Electric Co., to clean up the emissions from its power plants in Hillsborough County. Some residents bitterly joked that those plants were responsible for "the yellow ring around the bathtub of Tampa Bay" — an ochre haze that stained the sky, left a film of soot on cars and choked residents with respiratory problems. The utility was also required to pay a $3.5 million fine.

And in 2003, when the Piney Point phosphate plant near the southern end of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge leaked some of the waste from atop its gypsum stack into the edge of Tampa Bay after its owners walked away, the EPA launched a national review of how phosphate companies handled their waste.

That led to a 2015 agreement in which the world's largest phosphate company, Mosaic, agreed to spend up to $1.8 billion to mitigate hazardous waste issues at eight sites and pay an $8 million fine.

• • •

But the EPA has also repeatedly failed to protect Florida's wetlands.

The Army Corps of Engineers issues more permits to destroy wetlands in Florida than in any other state. The EPA has veto authority over those permits, but nationally it has only used that power 13 times. In Florida, it has only used its veto power twice — despite on-the-record statements by Corps employees that their permitting program is nothing but window-dressing and fails to protect anything.

And in 2008, a federal judge ruled that the EPA had turned a blind eye to flaws in Florida's Everglades cleanup efforts, allowing the state to violate a commitment to restore the River of Grass.

"Most Floridians would find it odd that we have to go to court to force the Environmental Protection Agency to do its job," said Kirk Fordham, then-CEO of the Everglades Foundation, at the time.

In the past, the EPA functioned as "the gorilla in the closet," said Richard Harvey, who oversaw the EPA's South Florida office from 1996 to 2015, and accurately predicted the toxic algae blooms that have recently plagued Lake Okeechobee and the Atlantic Coast.

Before joining the federal agency, Harvey worked for the state. When the Legislature would propose something damaging to the environment, he said, they would warn them that the EPA "would come in and override us." That was enough to defeat those measures.

But in recent years, under the Bush and Obama administrations, Harvey said, "the EPA started deferring more to the states." That's what led to the agency's inaction during the Flint water crisis. The Michigan town's drinking water has been contaminated since 2014.

Under Trump, he said, expect that deference to the states to be the norm.

"It's going to be even more of a toothless tiger under this administration," Harvey said.

For opponents of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection's proposal to increase the amount of regulated chemical pollutants that could be dumped in the state's rivers, streams and other sources of drinking water, the EPA is the last chance to stop that plan.

The EPA is now reviewing those limits to see if they comply with the Clean Water Act. But with the anti-regulation Trump administration in charge, "whatever the DEP wants to do it will be allowed to do," predicted Jeff Ruch, executive director of the environmental watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

For some Florida politicians, that would be fine. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a potential gubernatorial candidate, penned an op-ed column in 2012 about Florida's water quality standards that was headlined: We don't need the EPA.

• • •

Perhaps the greatest impact the EPA has on Florida is in funding.

Since 2002, for instance, the agency has been footing the bill for Florida health workers to check the beaches of 30 coastal counties for the types of bacteria that will make people sick. If the Florida Healthy Beaches Program finds too much fecal coliform bacteria or enterococci bacteria, the beach is closed until the risk declines.

The EPA also gives the DEP money — $110.7 million in the 2015-2016 fiscal year — that the state then lends to local governments for building and maintaining their sewer and water plants and transmission lines.

Without the federal agency, local and state governments would have to come up with that money on their own.

As of late January, DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said, the EPA is "continuing to award the environmental program grants and state revolving loan fund grants to the states and tribes and that they are working to quickly address issues related to other categories of grants."

But what happens next? Florida will have to wait and see.

Information from the Northwest Florida Daily News was used in this report. Contact Craig Pittman at craig@tampabay.com. Follow @craigtimes.