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DeSantis Signs Clean Waterways Act, Which Has Been Criticized By Environmentalists

The St. Johns River.
The St. Johns River.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed into law measures that include bigger fines for dumping pollutants into waterways and new rules for septic tanks and agricultural runoff, though environmentalists said the rules don’t go far enough.

One of the measures (HB 1091) makes numerous changes in the amounts and duration of penalties for violating environmental laws. The other bill (SB 712) is based on some recommendations from the state’s Blue-Green Algae Task Force and has been dubbed the “Clean Waterways Act.” Both took effect Wednesday after being signed Tuesday.

“All these changes are really a strong step forward for Florida's environment. Certainly, one of the most significant pieces of substantive legislation in quite some time,” DeSantis said before signing the bills while at the Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Juno Beach.

The bill signings came a day after DeSantis approved a new $92.2 billion state budget that included $322 million for Everglades restoration, $50 million for natural springs, $25 million to fight algal blooms and red tide, and $160 million for statewide water-quality improvements. He also vetoed about $1 billion from the budget, including cutting about $60 million in water and wastewater projects.

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“It's important to get the funding like we did last year and this year, but you also want to have good policy guiding so that the dollars actually make a positive impact,” DeSantis said.

However, several environmental groups were critical of the Clean Waterways Act and had urged DeSantis to veto it. They supported stronger measures during the 2020 legislative session and called the bill a “missed opportunity.”

“The Clean Waterways Act had a promising start, but as it moved through the policymaking process it was watered down to the point of being ineffective,” Florida Conservation Voters Executive Director Aliki Moncrief said. “Even official Senate staff analysis admits that many of the rules proposed in this legislation cannot be implemented without further approval of the Legislature, leaving intended water protections at the will of future politicians.”

Moncrief added the law limits local communities from adopting measures to protect their waterways.

The bill preempts local governments from passing what are known as Rights of Nature regulations, which provide legal rights to any plant, animal, body of water or other part of the natural environment unless authorized by the state.

The environmental group Speak Up Wekiva has filed a federal lawsuit contending that a portion of the bill could block a local ballot initiative. 

The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Orlando, argues the new law could preempt the Wekiva River and Econlockhatchee River Bill of Rights, known as WEBOR, an Orange County charter amendment proposed by the group for the Nov. 3 ballot. 

The law also allows current local biosolids ordinances to remain on the books until repealed. 

"This matter is of utmost importance today because the governor, with a stroke of his pen, eviscerated the rights of citizens and charter counties to protect their own waters and thereby their own health, safety and welfare," Chuck O'Neal, president of Speak Up Wekiva, said in a prepared statement.

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In a news release, the Florida Springs Council, Sierra Club and St. Johns Riverkeeper accused DeSantis of ignoring the task force recommendations, such as “the development and implementation of a septic system inspection and monitoring program.”

“The bill fails to require polluters to reduce the damage they cause our waters enough to bring them back to health,” Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen said in a prepared statement. “SB 712 is all promise and no delivery. It preserves the Florida status quo: Pretend that the requirements in law are working when they’re not, and kick the can down the road.”

Jen Lomberk, the Matanzas Riverkeeper and the vice-chair of Waterkeepers Florida, said the measure “just doubles down on the same broken water regulatory system that got us into this mess in the first place.”

“While SB 712 does initiate rulemaking to address things like septic systems, biosolids, and stormwater runoff, the effectiveness of these protections rely entirely on the specifics of the rules that will be drafted and hopefully adopted in the future,” she writes. “History has proven that this process favors polluting industries.”

But Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said the “comprehensive legislation” is the product of groups such as agriculture, utilities and homeowners working together.

“Don't point a finger, but ask people to come together and to do more now for Florida's environment,” Valenstein said. “Again, a simple concept, but it simply had not been tried. And it certainly worked out.”

Among the act’s changes: regulation of the 2.6 million septic tanks in the state will be moved from the Department of Health to the Department of Environmental Protection; utilities will be required to develop inspection, maintenance and replacement plans for their wastewater systems; and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs must perform on-site verification of agricultural “best management practices” every two years.

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The other bill signed Tuesday increases most penalties by 50% for polluters. Also, the length of time certain penalties can be imposed will run until the violations are resolved by order or judgment. The duration change involves declaring each day an offense occurs as a separate offense.

House sponsor Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, argued waterways face an “existential crisis” and the intent of the law is to prevent illegal releases from being considered a “cost of doing business.”

Fine unsuccessfully sought to raise the fines last year, a proposal that was aimed at Brevard County for a 2017 sewage spill into the Indian River Lagoon that lasted 35 days. Fine’s solution last year was to impose a $2 fee for every gallon of raw sewage released.

DeSantis in September called for a 50% increase in fines as part of his environmental wish list for the 2020 legislative session, which began in January and ended in March.

He labeled the existing structure a “slap on the wrist,” noting penalties for sewage spills had been capped at $10,000 a day while pollutants were flowing.

“Most of the penalties that we have in law have basically been there for 20 years, and they really didn't pack the punch that they needed to,” DeSantis said Tuesday. “This bill not only increases civil and administrative penalties by 100% per sanitary sewer overflows, and 50% across the board for all environmental, all other environmental crimes, it also authorizes the Department of Environmental Protection to assess daily penalties until a violation is addressed.”

Copyright 2020 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.