The Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday it will not regulate transfers of water from one place to another — no matter how polluted the water is at the start.
The EPA proposal would let water transfer authorities, corporate farmers and other businesses skip having to obtain a Clean Water Act permit in certain cases.
The exemption would apply to water, even if it contains pollution, that is moved in tunnels, channels or natural streams and isn’t put to industrial, municipal or commercial uses.
A permit would still be required if the process of the water transfer itself might introduce pollutants.
The idea is to allow “needed flexibility to protect water quality, prevent costly litigation and promote the public good,” said Benjamin Grumbles, EPA’s assistant administrator for water.
EPA sped up its rule-making process in an effort to outflank pending court action and side with Florida’s sugar industry.
In 2004, the Supreme Court heard a case in which the Miccosukee Indian tribe and Friends of the Everglades argued that the South Florida Water Management District violated the Clean Water Act by pumping phosphorous-laden water into the Everglades without a federal permit.
The court didn’t rule directly on the issue, sending it back to the lower district court for trial on the issue of whether one or two water bodies were involved.
Before it went to trial, however, EPA reversed earlier legal opinions by saying Congress intended state and local water resource managers to oversee water transfers. EPA also joined with the sugar industry and the water district to defend against the claims.
Environmentalists say EPA would allow an entire class of water polluters to be exempt from the Clean Water Act — and authorize contaminants to be dumped into drinking water sources, lakes and streams.
Managing Attorney David Guest of the Earthjustice law firm’s Florida office said EPA’s proposed regulation would directly affect the 2004 case involving unhealthy flows of pollution into Lake Okeechobee, Florida’s largest freshwater lake.
“Transfers of contaminated water are a public health threat,” Guest said. “The EPA is supposed to be protecting us, not legalizing dangerous pollution.”