The state of Florida has failed to protect the threatened Everglades and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must step in to enforce anti-pollution rules, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Alan Gold's decision gives the EPA greater authority over water permits affecting discharges from sugar growers, farms and businesses, which are largely responsible for phosphorous-laden fertilizer runoff that is choking the vast wetlands. The EPA last year proposed a new cleanup plan largely opposed by the state.
But Gold, who noted that Everglades restoration has been the subject of court battles for 25 years, said that protecting the area is too important to be derailed by complaints that cleanup is too costly or politically unfeasible.
"There is no possibility of reversing the damage that has been done to the Everglades, and there is only the chance to preserve what remains in its current state," he wrote in a 76-page ruling.
The decision was harshly critical of the state's handling of the Everglades' problems, including Republican Gov. Rick Scott's recent request that EPA drop numeric limits for nutrients such as phosphorous in Florida waterways. In addition, state lawmakers several years ago made changes to the Everglades Forever Act that pushed back deadlines for reductions in phosphorous discharge.
State agencies and water managers, Gold wrote, "have not been true stewards of protecting the Everglades in recent years." His ruling effectively endorsed much of the EPA's plan unveiled last fall.
Gold set a July 1 deadline for EPA and others involved in the case to show what steps are being taken to comply with the ruling and the pollution reduction goals under the federal Clean Water Act.
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency was reviewing the ruling but had no immediate comment. The state Department of Environmental Protection, meanwhile, said it is already pursuing an appeal.
The state agency said it was "disappointed" in the ruling, contending it amounts to "federalizing Florida's Everglades permitting process."
But environmental groups praised Gold.
"Judge Alan Gold's ruling shows that he is determined to see through the most complex environmental litigation in U.S. history," said Alan Farago, conservation chair at Friends of the Everglades.
"Judge Gold's bold and decisive decision is a stark reminder that we cannot squander the opportunity to protect America's fragile Everglades and our water supply," said Kirk Fordham, CEO of the Everglades Foundation.