TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Environmental groups filed suit in federal court Thursday to undo a decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month that handed Florida officials primary regulatory authority over the state’s wetlands.
The groups contend that the decision could further destroy the state’s dwindling inventory of marshes, swamps and other sensitive ecosystems that now account for a fifth of the country’s remaining wetlands.
In their lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the groups assert that the EPA’s decision last month would allow developers in Florida to get projects fast-tracked by avoiding the federal scrutiny that developments in other states get under a host of federal environmental laws.
“EPA is lowering the bar to allow a state, for the first time, to run the federal wetlands program without meeting federal standards,” said Tania Galloni, Earthjustice Managing Attorney for Florida. “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 had about 20 million acres (8 million hectares) of wetlands at around statehood in 1845. By 1996, the state had lost nearly half of that because of dredging, draining and filling. The state’s population growth has spawned a boom in development, which has prompted much of that destruction.
Among the state’s most prized environmental jewels is the Florida Everglades, which is currently the focus of a massive restoration project costing billions of dollars to undo decades of damage, including the draining of huge swaths of its marshes.
Wetlands serve a key role in the ecosystem, including in helping maintain water quality and absorbing flood waters.
The state Department of Environmental Protection said the lawsuit was under review and had no immediate comment.
Florida’s request to gain sole permitting authority was launched under the administration of GOP Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, who said the EPA’s action does away with “duplicative rules on the state and federal levels” that, he said, “were a waste of taxpayer dollars, and created confusion for everyone involved.”
Current Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, took on that mantle and earlier this year formally petitioned the federal government to transfer that authority.
Florida became the third state to gain broader permitting authority of wetlands under the federal Clean Water Act. Michigan and New Jersey had been granted similar authority decades ago.
The lawsuit asserts that granting Florida greater authority over wetlands could “threaten to open the floodgates” for other states to seek similar authority.
Environmentalists had hoped to delay the decision to allow the Biden administration to weigh in. Environmental groups have vowed legal challenges, arguing that the application was rushed and failed to take into account a host of issues, including the state’s ability to adequately perform the environmental analysis that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and other federal agencies had performed.
Florida’s secretary of environmental protection, Noah Valenstein, had previously said the state would respect “the underpinnings and protections of law and the Clean Water Act” and would use his department’s local expertise to drive development decisions.
“We are passionate about our resources in the state of Florida. Whenever we can have our team of scientists and permitters issue the permits that allows us to be in the driver’s seat, that’s what we want to do,” Valenstein said last month, when the federal EPA granted the state’s request for broader wetlands oversight.
The announcement by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler was long sought by developers and Republican allies, who argued that the layers of regulatory scrutiny were cumbersome, expensive and unnecessary. Supporters touted the move as a step that would streamline the permitting process when property owners seek to develop wetlands.
Florida officials pushed through the request ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on Wednesday, and permitting oversight of wetlands now shifts to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.
The lawsuit was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of 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.
This story has been corrected to show that President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration is next week, not next month.
Bobby Caina Calvan, The Associated Press