The federal Environmental Protection Agency for the first time Monday in Florida set numeric water pollution standards for a state although 13 others already have adopted such rules on their own.
The federal standards are required by the settlement of a lawsuit last year. They replace Florida's vague descriptive regulations for determining when rivers, lakes and other inland waters are polluted with such contaminants as fertilizer and animal and human waste. Those pollutants are blamed for toxic algae blooms that have clogged Florida's waterways.
"The EPA has stepped in to rescue Florida from a powerful gang of polluters who for decades have used campaign contributions and intimidation to stop state government in Tallahassee from taking this action," said Frank Jackalone, Florida staff director for the Sierra Club.
His is one of five environmental groups that sued EPA for failing to enforce the Clean Water Act of 1972, charging Florida was allowed to get away without adopting numeric standards.
The Florida case could set a precedent for similar action in other states.
Environmentalists, though, say Florida is in worse shape because of its thousands of water bodies, a flat topography and warm climate that make those waters highly susceptible to algae growth. The EPA says more than 1,900 rivers and streams, 375,000 acres of lakes and 500 square miles of estuaries in Florida are impaired by nutrients.
The EPA agreed to delay implementation in a bow to critics. They include business and agriculture interests as well as Governor-elect Rick Scott, outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist and other politicians.
"This delay will allow the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, local governments, business and residents more time to plan and evaluate the cost, effectiveness and best method for implementing these standards," Crist said in a statement.
Scott last week added his voice to those asking EPA to delay action. The Republican also issued a statement saying he "will make it a priority to ensure that science, not politics, drives the protection of our state's most precious natural resources."
EPA regional administrator Gwen Keyes-Fleming disputed "exaggerated doomsday claims" that complying with the rules will cost $8 billion to $20 billion and set back Florida's economic recovery.
The agency estimates the annual cost at $135 million to $206 million, or $40 to $71 per household. Keyes-Fleming said the rules will help Florida's economy.
"Businesses, hotels and tourist attractions operating near harmful algae blooms run the risk of losing customers when waters are too fouled for swimming or fishing," she said.
Swimmers have gotten rashes and glass bottom boats have stopped running at Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee. A water treatment plant on the Caloosahatchee River in southwest Florida was temporarily closed due to algae blooms, Keyes-Fleming said. There also have been reports of fish kills and people sickened from touching toxic algae.
The new rules will be used to set criteria governing discharge permits for such facilities as sewage treatment and industrial plants that discharge into waters that exceed the pollution limits.
Ryan Banfill, a spokesman for a business- and agriculture-backed group called Don't Tax Florida -- formed to oppose the standards -- disputed EPA cost estimates.
"That's heifer dust," Banfill said, citing private and state studies. "This is going to cost Florida's families and businesses billions of dollars."
The multi-billion-dollar estimates anticipate use of reverse-osmosis, the most expensive method for cleaning discharges, but EPA officials say the new regulations will require cheaper advanced treatment.
The EPA says opponents' cost estimates also are based on treating all of Florida's 13.6 million acres of farm land, but the rules will affect less than 10 percent of that acreage.
The regulations closely resemble standards proposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection last year. That proposal was offered after the lawsuit had been filed and it's been put on hold pending completion of the federal rules.
The settlement also calls for similar downstream rules covering estuaries that EPA plans to adopt by August 2012.
David Guest, a lawyer for the environmental legal group EarthJustice, predicted opponents won't give up.
"I believe we will see a plethora of lawsuits filed by a rogues gallery of polluters," Guest said.
EarthJustice represented the environmental groups suing EPA. Other plaintiffs besides the Sierra Club are the Florida Wildlife Federation, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, St. Johns Riverkeeper and Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida.