'It’s so crazy it seems unreal': Florida enviro regulators to vote on weakened water standards

Florida Governor Rick Scott © Chris Tilley
The Florida Environmental Regulation Commission (ERC) is set to vote on new environmental standards that would allow heightened levels of toxins and carcinogens into state drinking water sources. The rule is being pushed by major industries.

The ERC, a governor-appointed body, will decide Tuesday whether to update Florida water quality standards for the first time in 24 years. The proposal, approved by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), would increase the number of regulated chemicals legally allowed in state drinking water sources from 54 to 92, while increasing limits for more than two dozen known ‒ and currently regulated ‒ carcinogens, according to The Miami Herald.

The proposal would also lessen the allowed limits on 13 chemicals, including two carcinogens, that are already regulated by the state.

Environmental and health advocates say the new limits would severely weaken drinking water standards, exposing Floridians to more toxic chemicals, including those linked to cancer.

"Toxic algae blooms in South Florida are making people sick, hurting our economy, closing our beaches and the [Governor] Rick Scott administration wants to legalize even more toxic chemicals in our water?" Linda Young, director of the Florida Clean Water Action Network, told the Herald. “It’s so crazy it seems unreal, and they’re not even embarrassed by it."

The carcinogen benzene, a chemical used in gas and oil drilling operations like hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, would be allowed to exist drinking water sources at 2 parts per billion from the current 1.18 ppb; the federal standard for benzene is 1.14 ppb.

Environmentalists say that the rule proposal would mean a higher risk of cancer for more Floridians.

"DEP’s proposed criteria will lower standards for 89 known carcinogens and/or human health-based toxic chemicals," Randall Denker, a former attorney for the department, wrote in a letter to ERC commissioners. "Floridians will get weaker protection from almost two dozen carcinogens if the ERC approves DEP’s proposal. Essentially all of the chemicals would be allowed in our drinking water supplies, shellfishing areas, swimming and fishing waters at significantly higher amounts."

The rule proposal was compiled by DEP using a nationally-untested model for determining cancer risk, according to the Herald. The unique "probabilistic analysis" was crafted for specifically Floridians, who are likely to consume more seafood that can contain dangerous toxin levels. The DEP says the method strengthens health standards compared to federal demands under the Clean Water Act, adding that the rule was reviewed by "scientists at EPA [US Environmental Protection Agency], Florida Department of Health, four Florida universities and the California Environmental Protection Agency."

"DEP’s and EPA’s nationally recognized scientists have worked diligently for multiple years to develop the criteria, which incorporate both the EPA guidance and data specific to Florida," DEP spokesperson Dee Ann Miller told the Herald. "The criteria take into account how, and how much, Floridians eat seafood, drink, shower and swim, and set the limits necessary to protect us all from adverse health effects."

Opponents of the rule have also criticized the composition of the ERC, a non-salaried body that is appointed solely by the state's governor, currently Republican Rick Scott. The board has only five of its seven seats filled; the unfilled seats are those that are dedicated to representatives of local government and the environmental community, two sectors likely opposed to the rule.

The other seats are filled by representatives of agriculture, the development industry, citizens, and the scientific and technical community, in accordance with state requirements. Appeals to Scott asking him to fill the vacant seats were unsuccessful, the Herald reported.

Furthermore, Tuesday's hearing and vote was moved up from September without an explanation from DEP, riling opponents who believe the rule will set the stage for fracking operations in the state. The state legislature has repeatedly failed to pass legislation that would prohibit localities from banning fracking operations in recent years.

Florida environmental regulators point out that the proposed rule would put new limits on the likes of cyanide and beryllium, while strengthening standards for other chemicals, such as trichloroethylene, also known as trike, which can cause birth defects or cancer.