Earthjustice lawsuit aims to return federal oversight for Florida wetlands permits

“For the Trump administration to now hand over wetlands oversight to the same…

Earthjustice lawsuit aims to return federal oversight for Florida wetlands permits
Earthjustice lawsuit aims to return federal oversight for Florida wetlands permits 1

Max Chesnes
 
| Treasure Coast Newspapers

A lawsuit filed by a coalition of environmental groups Thursday seeks to stop Florida from having sole authority over wetlands permits.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December stripped itself and the Army Corps of Engineers of oversight in the state process. 

The suit, filed by nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice on behalf of seven Florida conservation groups, states the EPA’s rushed go-ahead is “unlawful” and could put wetlands and protected species at risk, especially if more states take similar action. 

More: Should EPA give Florida DEP sole authority to let developers fill in wetlands?

Citing the Clean Water Act, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler signed off on the change Dec. 17, a move that drew swift criticism from environmentalists who said it will reduce protection of wetland resources and give developers fewer regulations. 

“For decades, Florida has failed miserably under the Clean Water Act to protect our estuaries, local communities and economy from harmful algae blooms,” Jason Totoiu, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity wrote in a prepared statement. 

“For the Trump administration to now hand over wetlands oversight to the same underfunded, understaffed state regulators adds insult to injury, and will result in accelerated destruction of wildlife habitat and worsen water quality,” he added.

Earthjustice lawsuit 

The seven conservation groups that filed the lawsuit are the: 

The Army Corps and its Florida commander, Col. Andrew Kelly, are listed as defendants in the lawsuit, alongside top EPA officials and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. 

Only two other states, Michigan and New Jersey, have sole authority over wetlands permitting.

Florida, now the third, has more wetlands than any state except Alaska.

More: Florida takes wetlands permitting role from federal government

Sole authority

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection having sole authority “will enhance the protection of Florida’s wetlands” and use the same criteria to make decisions as the federal agencies did, DEP spokesperson Weesam Khoury told TCPalm in December

DEP’s arguments for streamlining the process — eliminating redundancy, long wait times and federal intervention — are the very reasons the system should stay as it is, some Treasure Coast environmentalists have said. 

More: What are Lake Okeechobee discharges? 

The lawsuit expounds on this, claiming the state’s program is not as rigid as federal law, and relies on “unprecedented arrangements” to transfer the oversight. The suit also claims the EPA’s actions failed to allow a lawful transfer of authority. 

“Florida’s record of wetlands protection is already abysmal,” Earthjustice attorney Bonnie Malloy wrote in a prepared statement. “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 (coronavirus) pandemic.” 

For more news, follow Max Chesnes on Twitter.

Max Chesnes is a TCPalm environment reporter covering issues facing the Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River and Lake Okeechobee. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes, email him at max.chesnes@tcpalm.com and give him a call at 772-978-2224.

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