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EPA grants Florida wetlands permitting authority; environmentalists oppose

Posted at 10:01 PM, Dec 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-18 10:00:00-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida is now the third state in the country to be approved to administer the Clean Water Act Section 404 Program.

On Thursday, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency announced it has granted Florida sole authority to issue wetland permits.

An authority previously handled by the U.S. Army corps of Engineers and the EPA.

Florida joins Michigan and New Jersey as the only states with such authority.

“This program is the part of the Clean Water Federal act that dictates when you can build a development or any other kind of project in a wetland,” said Amber Crooks, Environmental Policy Manager at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

According to the EPA, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA) requires a permit before dredged or fill material may be discharged into certain waters of the United States.

“This 404 program is one of the staples of environmental protection, we have so many wetlands here in Florida,” said Crooks.

According to the EPA, Florida's assumption of the CWA 404 program will allow the state to more effectively and efficiently evaluate and issue permits.

“Federal authorities don’t delegate this type of permit often, but Florida has, beyond question one of the greatest environmental records of any state, and I couldn’t be happier that Florida has shown it can meet the strict national standards EPA sets to protect human health and the environment,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler in a press release.

But, environmentalists worry less oversight from the federal government will result in less protection of wetlands.

"We are part of the Everglades so having this go forward with the state of Florida taking on the heavy burden of the Clean Water Act, it’s going to eliminate some of those federal protections that we’ve been relying on in recent years to try to stem the impacts of development and growth in our area," said Crooks. "Simply from it switching from a federal agency to a state agency."

Crooks says she fears that the state will not be stringent enough when handing out permits as Florida continues to grow.

“This is essentially an early holiday gift to the developers in our state because this will fast track the process of building new roads, new developments, new mines,” said Crooks.

Crooks says Florida has over 11-million acres of wetlands and fast-tracking development would lead to the loss of important ecosystems.

"They are key to our water quality because they are actually nature's kidneys, naturally cleansing our water," said Crooks.

Impacting wildlife that resides in those habitats.

“Florida has over 130-listed species, and many of them right here in southwest Florida, like the Florida panther,” said Crooks.

“This will make the task of trying to promote smart growth and to make sure projects are avoiding those sensitive wetland areas even harder.”

Crooks says the Conservancy of Southwest Florida has been advocating against assumption for over two years and will be exploring options to see what can be done to stop this.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, whose Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services includes the state’s Office of Agricultural Water Policy, previously expressed opposition to this measure and today offered the following statement:

“Both the DeSantis and Trump administrations have demonstrated a disregard for transparency and disinterest in protecting our waters. Those concerned with Florida’s environment have no reason to believe the State of Florida is prepared to manage critical wetlands permitting in a transparent, apolitical manner. It is a dangerous mistake for Administrator Wheeler, on the Trump administration’s way out the door, to strip this authority from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and hand it off to an underfunded, understaffed state agency. Water is our state’s lifeblood, a public good on which all Floridians rely, and we must ensure the proper checks and balances remain in place to protect and conserve it for generations to come.”

Meanwhile, Senator Rick Scott applauded the EPA's Decision to grant Florida permitting authority, providing the following statement:

“This designation is great news for the State of Florida – it gives our state the ability to make the best decisions for our unique environment, with input from the public and environmental stakeholders. The duplicative rules on the state and federal levels were a waste of taxpayer dollars and created confusion for everyone involved, which is why I fought to streamline this process. I will keep working to cut unnecessary government red tape and improve efficiency on every level of government, while also making sure our environment is protected for generations to come.”

The transfer of permitting authority is set to take effect mid-January.