The EPA cut a deal with the Florida DEP that environmentalists say is too lax on regulating the nutrients dirtier the state's waters. (Photo of a Florida algae bloom via Florida Sea Grant)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection agreed on new limits for nutrients believed to be partially responsible for slimy algae blooms like this one in Florida waters. (Photo courtesy of Florida Sea Grant.)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection came to an agreement this week on new standards for water pollution in the state. The deal pleases the state’s business community — but outrages environmentalists.

After years of negotiation, federal and state officials agreed on new criteria for two nutrients blamed for much of the state’s dirty water and dead fish. According to the Miami Herald, the two agencies “have agreed to new limits on nitrogen and phosphorus, two nutrients blamed for much of the state’s worst water quality problems.”

The Tampa Bay Times reports that the announcement has businesses breathing a sigh of relief:

Word of the EPA-DEP deal was greeted with delight by utilities, dairy farmers, pulp mills and other industries that had worked on drawing up the state’s proposed standards. The head of one of the state’s leading business lobbies, Tom Feeney of Associated Industries of Florida, said the credit for the EPA’s agreement is due to the continued political pressure on the agency from Florida’s congressional delegation.

However, environmental advocates are not nearly as pleased. The Times reports:

David Guest of Earthjustice compared the agreement to a deal to protect henhouses from “the Fox Consultation Council,” because “the polluting industries have effective control of the state pollution prevention process in Florida.”

In the past 30 years, nutrients have become the most common water pollution problem in the state. Nitrates and phosphorus from fertilizer, septic waste and other sources feed the increase in slimy algae blooms that kill fish and cause respiratory problems and rashes among swimmers. Some scientists have theorized that nutrient pollution helps to sustain long-running Red Tide blooms like the one that’s killed a record number of manatees this year, but so far the evidence of that is far from conclusive.

Environmental groups had sued the federal government because Florida wasn’t regulating this nutrient pollution well. As part of  a settlement with the groups, the EPA created the new criteria — but enviromentalists say it is nothing close to what is needed in Florida.

According to the Herald:

Environmentalists called the rules, which are supposed to set numeric limits on fertilizer, cow manure and other agricultural and industrial pollutants, too lax. Business and agricultural groups had campaigned against stricter standards initially proposed by the EPA, saying they would cost farmers, businesses and governments hundreds of millions or more.

David Guest, an attorney for Earthjustice, an environmental law firm that had sued the EPA over a decade-long delay in imposing standards, said the “flawed’’ plan will still face federal court review.

“We have record numbers of dead manatees washing up on southwest Florida right now, in the prime of our tourist season,” Guest said in a statement. “This is an absolute sell out. This bogus plan gives deep-pocketed polluters even more loopholes. And what do we, the public, get? More gross, slimy algae in the water.”

Right now, scientists are not directly pointing to pollution as the reason for the current algae bloom that is killing manatees in Southwest Florida. The bloom of karenia brevis, or red tide, began offshore, which makes the source of the problem hard to locate.

However, scientists are most concerned about a large group of manatees that are dying on the east coast of the state.

As Mother Jones reports:

There’s one big difference between the algae blooms on the east and west coasts—and that’s what’s causing them. The eastern bloom is fueled by nutrient pollution from storm runoff: a Miracle-Gro of fertilizers, sewage, manure, and pet wastes that fuels algae blooms. The cause of the western red tide is more muddled.

Once red tide makes it near shore, the algae bloom feeds off of manmade nutrients dumped into the water, research suggests.