Earthjustice sues on behalf of conservation groups to stop EPA rubber-stamping Florida wetlands destruction

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Article originally appeared at: https://www.stjohnsriverkeeper.org/earthjustice-sues-on-behalf-of-conservation-groups-to-stop-epa-rubber-stamping-florida-wetlands-destruction/

EPA’s approval of developer-backed scheme to turn permitting over to state violates U.S. environmental laws

Washington, D.C.  – Earthjustice filed suit today to stop an attempt by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to allow Florida to fast-track wetlands permits for construction projects that will degrade and ruin Florida’s natural landscape, all in violation of federal environmental laws.

While a worldwide pandemic is threatening lives and livelihoods across the United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is green lighting Florida’s proposal to take over the federal program that issues permits when developers and others want to fill sensitive marshes, cypress forests, ponds and other wetlands – Section 404 of the Clean Water Act. In EPA’s rush to push this through, the agency skirted procedural requirements — failing even to make the state program legally effective.

Lisa Rinaman, your St. Johns Riverkeeper, said: “Important checks and balances that have protected thousands of acres of wetlands within our watershed will be lost without federal oversight.” 

Take Action: Help Us Protect Our Wetlands!

EPA fast-tracked the approval, ignored Tribal and public input, and violated several federal laws. Contact EPA leadership and let them know that 404 assumption is bad for Florida:

  • Email EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler at: wheeler.andrew@epa.gov
  • Email the EPA’s forthcoming Acting Regional Administrator John Blevins at: blevins.john@epa.gov
  • Or tweet: @EPAAWheeler #No404Assumption

Earthjustice is representing the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, Miami Waterkeeper, and St. Johns Riverkeeper in the case filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“This reckless scheme violates several of our bedrock laws, including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, and lets developers avoid the National Environmental Policy Act, also known as ‘the people’s environmental law,’” said Tania Galloni, Earthjustice Managing Attorney for Florida. “EPA is lowering the bar to allow a state, for the first time, to run the federal wetlands program without meeting federal standards.  Developers have called this the ’holy grail’ because it would make it easier, faster and cheaper for them to get permits for big projects with less oversight and accountability for environmental impacts.”

“Florida’s record of wetlands protection is already abysmal,” said Earthjustice attorney Bonnie Malloy, “and now is not the time for the federal government to turn over a massive Clean Water Act program to a state with a shrinking budget amid the economic losses in the pandemic. It is deeply troubling that EPA and Florida rushed this process in the midst of a pandemic when families are focused on their health, communities and jobs. They were so hurried, in fact, they failed to follow the necessary procedures to make the transfer of authority legally effective.”

Jason Totoiu, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said: “The toxic algae blooms that now plague Florida are a direct result of the state’s decades-long failure to protect our waterways from wildlife-choking pollution. Now the state wants to make it even easier to dredge and fill wetlands that help filter these pollutants from entering our lakes, estuaries, and springs. Floridians will not stand for this absurd backward step that will only increase harm to the wild places that make Florida so special.”

Amber Crooks, Environmental Policy Manager for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said: “As Florida and its residents grapple with a never-ending onslaught of growth and development, protection for our natural resources should be strengthened, not further weakened.”

Kelly Cox, General Counsel for Miami Waterkeeper, said: “EPA’s decision undermines the intent of the Clean Water Act 404 program – to provide important oversight and scrutiny over our vulnerable wetlands. Instead, it puts these places directly in the line of fire. This decision is deeply disappointing and runs contrary to the public interest. The state of Florida and the federal government have once again prioritized special interests and the development-driven bottom line over environmental protection.”

In their lawsuit, the groups point out that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of Florida’s application to assume jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act permitting program is unlawful because Florida fails to demonstrate adequate authority to carry out the wetlands permitting program, fails to ensure protection of animals and plants under the Endangered Species Act, and fails to demonstrate it has sufficient funding and staffing to implement and enforce the program.  The state program does not have equivalent permit requirements, enforcement authority, access to courts, public notice, public participation opportunities, and other components that are integral parts of the federal program.  The EPA rushed to approve this program so that it may take effect by January 19, 2021, despite these and many other substantial gaps in the state’s proposal.

The groups are also challenging decisions that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made in connection with EPA’s review of Florida’s application to assume responsibility for wetlands permitting.  Specifically, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to ensure there would be “no jeopardy” to protected animals and plants if Florida took over the program and granting broad protection to developers who “incidentally” harm protected species.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also created an unlawful scheme for purportedly reviewing the state’s decisions on individual permits that may harm federally protected species.  And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the Administrative Procedure Act and Rivers and Harbors Act with its grossly truncated list of waters that it will continue to oversee.

Cris Costello, Organizing Manager of the Sierra Club, said:  “We are acting to set aright the present topsy turvy state of affairs.  This is an especially egregious example of what the DeSantis DEP has done over and over again now — join forces with Florida’s most callous polluters in assaults on our environment all the while claiming to be doing it a favor.  The fact that Trump’s EPA blessed this assault is par for the course.”

“Giving Florida the green light to issue permits to dredge and fill wetlands threatens the diversity of wildlife that live there,” said Lindsay Dubin, staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “Endangered Florida panthers, endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, and threatened Eastern indigo snakes are among the species that could be impacted if the state of Florida assumes permitting responsibilities without the proper laws, resources, and oversight in place. With more than 1 million species at risk of extinction worldwide, the clock is ticking. We should be protecting these species, not making it easier to destroy their habitat.”

Contacts:
Lisa Rinaman, St. Johns Riverkeeper, (904) 256-7591, lisa@stjohnsriverkeeper.org

Tania Galloni, Earthjustice Managing Attorney for Florida, (305) 726-1627, tgalloni@earthjustice.org

Bonnie Malloy, Earthjustice attorney, (850) 322-8086, bmalloy@earthjustice.org

Jason Totoiu, Center for Biological Diversity, (561) 568-6740, jtotoiu@biologicaldiversity.org

Lindsay Dubin, Defenders of Wildlife, (202) 772-3234, ldubin@defenders.org

Cris Costello, Sierra Club, (941) 914-0421, cris.costello@sierraclub.org

Amber Crooks, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, (239) 776-5601, amberc@conservancy.org

Preston Robertson, Florida Wildlife Federation, (850) 656-7113, preston@fwfonline.org

Kelly Cox, Miami Waterkeeper, (305) 905-0856, kelly@miamiwaterkeeper.org

Florida’s Wetlands Threatened by Loss of Federal Oversight

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Please see the below from the Florida Wildlife Federation. It is available on their website here.

The U.S. Department of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced it has granted the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) the authority to oversee dredge and fill permits in our wetlands and waterways. This authority could allow DEP to take over the federal program that serves to protect our precious water resources pursuant to the federal Clean Water Act.

The Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF) and many other conservation and environmental groups have strenuously opposed this action. Only two other states in the nation have assumed dredge and fill authority mainly due to the tremendous financial and personnel resources required to competently oversee wetland and waterway protection. With the state facing a financial shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, now is not the time to put even more on DEP’s plate. Indeed, we have already lost over ½ of our wetlands to development and agricultural conversion and many of the waterways under DEP’s present jurisdiction are degraded by pollution. These are natural areas that serve to recharge the water we drink and provide the habitats for many of our beloved native species. They also serve as recreation areas and benefit our fisheries. Moreover, special places such as the Everglades, the Apalachicola River and the St. Johns River may be on the receiving end of a lack of ability to enforce protections due to this transfer or power.

FWF believes this transfer is a major step backwards in protecting what makes Florida special and habitable.

The Clean Waterways Act of 2020

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By Senator Debbie Mayfield

Senator Debbie Mayfield was elected in 2016 to the Florida Senate, representing District 17, which includes southern Brevard and Indian River Counties. During the 2019 and 2020 Legislative Sessions, Senator Mayfield served as Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee on Agriculture, Environment and General Government; Vice Chair of the Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee; and as a member of the Appropriations Committee, Environment and Natural Resources Committee and the Health Policy Committee.

During the 2020 legislative session, I was honored to sponsor Senate Bill 712: The Clean Waterways Act. This comprehensive legislation provides a framework for improvements and restoration of Florida’s water bodies that are adversely affected by blue-green algae blooms.

The Clean Waterways Act addresses significant sources of nutrient pollution that are contributing to these blooms including onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems (septic tanks), Waste Water Treatment facility overflows and discharges, and agricultural and stormwater runoff. Furthermore, SB 712 provides meaningful deterrents to polluters by doubling fines for wastewater violations.

Some of SB 712’s primary components include:

  • Regulation of septic tanks as a source of nutrients and transfer of oversight from the Florida Department of Health to Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
  • Contingency plans for power outages to minimize discharges of untreated wastewater for all sewage disposal facilities.
  • Provision of financial records from all sanitary sewage disposal facilities so that DEP can ensure funds are being allocated to infrastructure upgrades, repairs, and maintenance that prevent systems from falling into states of disrepair.
  • Detailed documentation of fertilizer use by agricultural operations to ensure compliance with Best Management Practices and aid in evaluation of their effectiveness.
  • Updated stormwater rules and design criteria to improve the performance of stormwater systems statewide to specifically address nutrients.

While there is still work to be done, this framework is the roadmap to addressing water quality issues well into the future. As I continue my work as your State Senator, I am committed to protecting our waterways so that future generations may enjoy them as we have.

MRC Indian River Lagoon Report Card

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The report card is a visual representation of the lagoon’s condition through the data collected as part of the state’s monitoring program to determine if state regulatory standards are being met. Bottom line is, we need to do more.

The 2020 Report Card includes:

  • 137,202 agency data including 25 years of seagrass and 23 years of water quality data
  • 10 lagoon regions and 12 tributaries covering from Ponce Inlet to Jupiter Inlet
  • Scored and color-coded tables and maps to easily see changes over time and space

Check out this webpage for more information or watch the below video for an hour long presentation of the report card.

Stormwater PSAs

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Check out these PSA put out by the Indian River County Stormwater Division.

Recycling: Past and Present

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By Sharon Gorry

1950’s Indian River County
Recycling wasn’t an issue. Tripson Dairy delivered milk, orange juice, and just about anything we needed in glass bottles which, when empty, they collected at the next delivery. Coke, Mr. Pib, Root Beer, any type of beverage (a treat for sure) came in glass bottles which could be returned to the store for a refund of the 2 cent deposit charged at the time of purchase. It was not uncommon to see kids collecting bottles in their wagon and pulling it to the nearest grocer to collect the spoils for a candy bar or bubble gum treat. What an incentive. We did not have plastic or Styrofoam disposable plates and cups. It was all paper plates, paper cups (waxed), and paper straws. Groceries came home in brown paper bags that were used for household garbage (taken out every night) as well as repurposed as schoolbook covers. Essentially, no waste!

Fast forward to today
We see pictures of floating plastic islands in the ocean. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the Pacific Ocean is over 61,000 square miles, an area twice the size of Texas.

So what can we do?
REDUCE our reliance on items that are prepackaged and single-use plastic. Take your own bags to the grocery. Use permanent water bottles that you can refill.

Here is a list of what NOT to put in your recycling bin:

  • Electronics, hoses, Pyrex cookware, Styrofoam, six pack rings, plastic bags, clothing, rubber items, ceramics, shrink wrap, loose plastic bottle caps, candles with wax and window glass.
  • Shredded paper: The new processor will not accept shredded paper as a recyclable item because the small pieces fall through their conveyors and end up going into the landfill.
  • Batteries: Batteries should NOT be placed in the recycling cart.
  • Loose plastic film: including plastic shopping bags, bread bags, dry cleaning and newspaper bags can NEVER be put in the blue cart.
  • Used cooking oil: should never be put down the drain, instead it can now be recycled at one of the five Customer Convenience Centers or the Landfill.

Many items not recyclable in the blue carts can be recycled at the county’s five Customer Convenience Centers and main County Landfill. Learn more about these locations here: https://www.ircrecycles.com/Convenience_Centers.htm

Don’t flush outdated medicines down the drain. Take them to one of the two locations in Indian River County that have a Medicine Disposal Dropbox: The IRC Sheriff’s Office at 4055 41st St, Vero Beach and Walgreen’s at 1705 US1, Vero Beach

Keep items out of our landfill by donating unwanted appliances, furniture, linens, housewares, toys, and clothing to organizations that help the less fortunate. A few who have pick up service are:

Salvation Army Thrift Store: 772-563-0560
Habitat for Humanity: 772-257-0222
Goodwill Vero Beach: 772-770-3330
Goodwill Oslo Store: 772-564-8668


Plastics are now used more than most man-made materials and have long been under environmental scrutiny. However, robust global information, particularly about their end-of-life fate, is lacking. By identifying and synthesizing dispersed data on production, use, and end-of-life management of polymer resins, synthetic fibers, and additives, we present the first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured. We estimate that 8300 million metric tons (Mt) of virgin plastics have been produced to date. As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 Mt of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050.


Plastic pollution is a planetary threat, affecting nearly every marine and freshwater ecosystem. In response, multilevel mitigation strategies are being adopted, but these so far lack quantitative assessment of how they reduce plastic waste. We assessed the impact of three broad management strategies, plastic waste reduction, waste management, and environmental recovery, at different levels of effort to estimate plastic pollution to 2030 for 173 countries. We estimate that 19 to 23 million Mt, or 11%, of plastic waste generated globally in 2016 entered aquatic ecosystems. Considering the ambitious commitments currently set by governments, annual pollution may reach up to 53 million metric tons per year by 2030. To reduce pollution to a level well below this prediction, extraordinary efforts to transform the global plastics economy are needed.

WHAT’S IN A PLAN?The MPO’s 25 Year Plan

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By Brian Freeman

Every year people move to Indian River County because of the wonderful quality of life offered here. In addition to the warm weather year-round and the beautiful setting along the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River Lagoon, residents and visitors also enjoy the stress-free traffic. Over the next 25 years, the population of Indian River County is expected to grow by another 50,000 year-round residents (plus the seasonal residents who migrate here every winter).

Identifying the transportation improvements that will be needed over the next 25 years to maintain the uncongested roads that we enjoy today is one of the primary tasks of the Indian River County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). “Connecting IRC” is the theme of the MPO’s 2045 Long Range Transportation Plan. One of the goals of the 2045 plan is “providing an efficient transportation system that is connected, responsive, aesthetically pleasing, and meets the needs of all users.”

Improvements to many “connections” are identified in the plan, and several of these will be under construction in the next few years. First is the next phase of the 66th Avenue widening. Once complete, 66th Avenue will provide a four-lane connection from CR 510 in northern Indian River County to SR 60 by Indian River Mall. Within the next five years, construction will begin on widening CR 510 (to a four-lane road from CR 512 to US 1) and the new I-95 interchange at Oslo Road. Following those projects are improvements to Oslo Road, US 1, and 82nd Avenue.

Improving connections to the Cleveland Clinic hospital are also envisioned by the plan. Aviation Blvd. will be extended east of US 1 and north to 37th Street by the hospital. A majority of the county’s population lives west of the railroad. An Aviation Blvd. overpass at the railroad and US 1 will provide a connection to the hospital that is not delayed by the train.

Whether forecasting the weather or how your favorite sports team will perform, predicting the future always includes a degree of uncertainty. Transportation is no different. Advances continue in the development of self-driving cars (or autonomous vehicles); perhaps, by 2045, a majority of cars on the road will actually drive themselves. A shift towards telecommuting occurred during the pandemic. While many workers have resumed commuting to work, some companies (especially tech companies) are making the transition to telecommuting permanent. Changes in technology sometimes happen rapidly (such as with the smartphone). Luckily, the long range transportation plan is updated every five years, and planning for the year 2050 is just around the corner.

For more information on the Indian River County MPO and the 2045 Long Range Transportation Plan, please visit the MPO’s website at www.irmpo.com.


The Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) is the principal transportation agency for Indian River County and the cities of Vero Beach, Sebastian, Indian River Shores, Fellsmere, and Orchid. In addition to the long range plan, the MPO also prepares bicycle/pedestrian plans, greenways plans, transit development plans, and a five-year Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). For more information on the MPO’s plans and programs, please visit the MPO’s website at www.irmpo.com. The MPO also publishes a monthly newsletter known as The MPOverview. To receive The MPOverview in your inbox, please visit the MPO’s website and click on “Sign up for MPO updates!” Or contact the MPO at mpo@ircgov.com.


Brian Freeman is the Staff Director of the Indian River County Metropolitan Planning Organization. A graduate of Clemson University, Brian has been an Indian River County resident and planner since 2003. He and his wife, Carolina, have three kids and one dog.

Lagoon-Minded Landscaping

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Changing the paradigm one yard at a time.

For many who are fortunate to live in our sub-tropical coastal community, a beautiful new landscape begins with large canopy trees, tropical palms, and colorful shrubs. It ends with ample expanses of green lawn and a hefty price to keep it maintained and looking pristine. The underlying cost is what all of that ‘beauty’ is doing to our local waterbodies. As we know, the overuse of herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers are causing irreparable damage to the Indian River Lagoon.

So how does one create a more responsible landscape without sacrificing beauty? The answer is to begin by asking questions about the water on and around your property and use those answers to help guide design decisions.

If you live on a Lagoon-front property with a concrete seawall; install a 6’ – 10’ buffer along the edge of the wall using native grasses and groundcovers. This will prevent fertilizer and pesticide runoff into the Lagoon. The buffer will also keeps nutrient-rich lawn clippings from entering the water. For the finishing touch, add crushed shell mulch that stays put in heavy rains, keeps organics from washing over the seawall, and gives a natural coastal look to the new landscape feature.

If you live in a house built prior to 1987, create a rain garden that captures and holds pollution-laden stormwater. These older homesites were built to allow stormwater to flow down streets, sidewalks, and driveways into a drain which often empties directly into the closest body of water. Rain gardens are shallow depressions in the landscape that feature a variety of plants and grasses that filter water before letting it flow naturally into the ground. Planting your rain garden with native plants that tolerate both wet and dry conditions not only enhances the beauty of your yard, but also provides valuable habitat for butterflies, birds, and other wildlife.

Lagoon-friendly landscape design is a mind-changing process. Whether you choose to start small by adding a rain garden or seawall buffer or go big by renovating to a water-wise native landscape, remember that someone is always watching for what’s new in the neighborhood. These beautiful and functional landscape features just may prompt others to take similar action.

Robin Pelensky is a registered landscape architect, LEED Accredited Professional, and President of Surlaterre Landscape Architecture, LLC. Robin has designed and overseen the installation of functional Lagoon-friendly landscapes for municipalities, commercial property owners, and homeowners who live close to or adjacent to the Indian River Lagoon. She frequently speaks on sustainable landscape design and has earned numerous awards and recognition for her environmental contributions to the Florida landscape.

Stormwater Galore

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By Paul Fafeita

It has been written…. that as Florida’s population increases (approximately 900 people a day move into Florida), so does the total amount of land converted to impervious (concrete/asphalt) surfaces. Florida is also the number one tourist destination in the world. Even with the pandemic, folks are still traveling (obviously not as much by air) but more by vehicle.

Stormwater pollution from urban, agricultural, and industrial runoff is a major source of water pollution affecting our estuaries, lakes, rivers, wetlands, and aquifer. Regulation to reduce stormwater runoff is essential to the protection of Florida’s waters.

Regulatory agencies in Florida have over the years written and re-written rules that regulate these and many other water concerns that affect all of us. FDEP’s 2010 Environmental Resource Permit (ERP) Stormwater Quality Applicant’s Handbook would have been a first step for establishing stronger regulations, but was ultimately not adopted. Ten years later, those 2010 draft rules can be built upon for stronger protective procedures that will reflect the advances in technology and scientific understanding of many of the effects that growth is having in Florida. The state must promote strong stormwater regulations that act as a regulatory floor, not a ceiling, for local governments. Equally important, the FDEP must enforce the regulations they adopt… fairly… and across the state.
With the projected increase in our population and with new sub-divisions and developments, we need to be assured that the stormwater management systems will be upgraded to modern standards.

The Clean Water Coalition of Indian River County (CWC) has been very active since our formation just over two and a half years ago. The CWC is looking forward to participating in discussion as new “rules” workshops begin by the FDEP. The CWC will be advocating on behalf of our more than 880 partner organizations/businesses for the strictest regulations for stormwater. There is no other option.

Parts of the above narrative have come from a letter sent to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and some state legislators by a number of environmental organizations throughout Florida. Stormwater pollution is a major concern of the CWC, and we will continue to work for our partners to prevent it.

Paul Fafeita, retired, served 30 years with the Indian River County Sheriff’s Office and is currently Owner/Operator of Just Bumminit Guide Service. He is President of the Clean Water Coalition of Indian River County and also the President of the Treasure Coast Chapter of the Coastal Conservation Assoc.

WHAT IS STORMWATER?

Stormwater is not just rain. It contains a lot of nasty stuff that drains off our roads, parking lots, driveways, roofs, and yards. It is water that now contains gasoline, oil, brake dust, cigarette butts, trash, animal waste, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, decayed plants, and soil. This mixture gets washed into ditches, canals, and gutters and ultimately ends up in our Indian River Lagoon and the ocean.

Stormwater management is essential to prevent flooding in our streets and neighborhoods and to remove pollutants before they enter our already impaired Lagoon.