Court backs need for science in federal water rules
A U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, Fla., has ruled that Environmental Protection Agency-imposed numeric nutrient criteria for Florida streams and unimpaired lakes are unlawful because they are arbitrary and have no scientific basis.
The ruling resolves several challenges to federal numeric nutrient criteria imposed by EPA on Florida waterways. The court upheld EPA's ability to issue federal standards under the particular facts at issue in Florida and upheld some of the particular EPA standards. However, the court agreed with arguments raised by the American Farm Bureau Federation and its co-plaintiffs that two key types of restrictions were unlawful. This aspect of the ruling underscores that sound science must support such costly, federally imposed actions.
One of the key concerns of the court, and a central theme asserted by the AFBF group, was that EPA could not show that the streams criteria were needed to prevent harm to the environment, as required by Florida law.
"Aiming nutrient standards at levels designed to prevent harm to the environment is good policy and is required under Florida law," said AFBF General Counsel Ellen Steen. "EPA attempted to impose standards that would prohibit any increase above naturally occurring nutrient levels in pristine waters. The court recognized that EPA was arbitrary in assuming that any increase above pristine nutrient levels is harmful."
According to Steen, this ruling will help ensure that if EPA imposes federal numeric nutrient criteria on other states in the future, it must use scientifically valid methods that comport with state laws. Numeric nutrient criteria impose costly restrictions on agriculture and other activities, so any criteria, whether issued by EPA or a state, must be based on valid scientific principles.
Some provisions of the EPA standards survived judicial scrutiny and are set to go into effect in the near future.
Meanwhile, EPA must now decide its next steps for the standards that were vacated by the court ruling.
"EPA can elect to go back to the drawing board and propose new, presumably science-based criteria, or it could attempt again to justify the standards rejected by the court," Steen explained.
Should EPA decide to propose revised criteria, it has the option of approving a different set of numeric nutrient criteria recently developed by Florida's Department of Environmental Protection. AFBF is working with Florida and other industry groups in urging EPA to approve the Florida DEP criteria.