The U.S Environmental Protection Agency has turned a "blind eye" to Florida's Everglades cleanup efforts, while the state is violating its own commitment to restore the vast ecosystem, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
In a stinging ruling from Miami, U.S. District Judge Alan Gold put to rest a 2004 lawsuit filed against the EPA, ordering the agency to review water pollution standards and timelines set by Florida for the Everglades.
Gold repeatedly accused EPA of acting "arbitrarily and capriciously" in its failure to adhere to the mandates of the Clean Water Act.
"Plaintiffs are correct," Gold wrote, "that EPA has once again avoided its duty to protect the Everglades."
The Miccosukee Indians, who live in the Everglades, and Friends of the Everglades sued the EPA in 2004. They claimed the agency violated the Clean Water Act by allowing Florida to change its water pollution requirements for the Everglades and delay its pollution compliance deadlines.
Gold agreed, adding that the Florida Legislature "violated its fundamental commitment and promise to protect the Everglades."
What impact the ruling will have is unclear. Florida and its sugar cane industry last month agreed to a deal to eliminate cane farms and sell nearly 300 square miles in the Everglades to the state of Florida for $1.75 billion.
The case centered on a 2003 amendment to the state's 1994 Everglades Forever Act.
Florida was originally supposed to meet lower phosphorous levels in the Everglades by 2002. The 1994 act pushed that deadline to 2006.
The amendment changed the timeline again, making it more ambiguous by setting a date of 2016 at the earliest.
The phosphorous pollution comes largely from fertilizer runoff from farms and development. The nutrient has long suffocated life in the Everglades, driving out native species and poisoning the water.
The entire wetlands once covered more than 6,250 square miles, but have shrunk by half, replaced with homes and farms and a 2,000-mile grid of drainage canals. The Everglades has since lost 90 percent of its wading birds, and 68 threatened or endangered species face extreme peril.
The restoration effort is the largest of its kind in the world.
The Miccosukee and environmentalists have long accused the state of dragging its feet. The state has spent about $2 billion on restoration, but lawsuits, missteps and a lack of federal funds have bogged down substantial progress for decades.
In his ruling, Gold said the EPA failed to abide by federal law when it did nothing to stop Florida from amending its statute that put off its timeline for cleaning up the Everglades.
"I have both the authority and duty to assure that any future Florida regulations affecting water quality standards are based on statutory authority which has been reviewed comprehensively by the agency entrusted by Congress to enforce" the Clean Water Act, he wrote.
The judge did hand EPA a partial victory by noting it did not violate the Clean Water Act in approving how Florida measures phosphorous levels in the Everglades, by averaging concentrations over time. The plaintiffs had sought a more precise method.
"This is a very big step in stopping the evasion of the state from doing its duty for the Everglades," said Miccosukee attorney Dexter Lehtinen, who called Tuesday's ruling a victory.
Lehtinen said the message from the judge to the state and EPA is clear: "You can't keep changing the rules in the middle of the game just to look good."
The not-for-profit Everglades Foundation also lauded the ruling.
"Most Floridians would find it odd that we have to go to court to force the Environmental Protection Agency to do its job," said foundation CEO Kirk Fordham.
Florida's Department of Environmental Protection and EPA said they were still reviewing the ruling.