DEP Proposes Allowing More Toxins in Water; Eating More Than Three Shrimp Per Week Dangerous, Critics Say

The environment hasn't been a high priority for legislators at any level since Al Gore was wearing earth tones, but what's happening in Florida under Rick Scott is downright scary. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is in serious fox-guarding-henhouse mode. 

Its current secretary is Herschel Vinyard, whose background is in the shipbuilding industry. Watchdogs noted that in 2011, the DEP experienced a 28 percent drop in enforcement cases against polluters and that a high-level official had directed staff to work with businesses rather than punish them. In December, the DEP purged a bunch of its regulators, laying off 58 veteran employees. 

On February 5, the DEP held a public meeting to discuss new proposed standards for "human health-based water quality criteria." The agency is supposed to establish acceptable levels for carcinogens in water, so that humans do not get cancer via fish consumption or drinking water. But the agency's proposed changes would allow for more carcinogens than are currently allowed. 

If anyone objected? Oh, there would be a chance for public comment -- for a whopping eight hours!

Thank God someone was paying attention. 

Although the public comment period was supposed to last until February 12, critics say the DEP did not make available the technical papers describing the proposed changes until eight hours before commenting closed. Only after environmentalists objected did DEP extend the comment period to March 4, this past Monday. 

In a nine-page letter sent Monday to Gov. Scott, Linda Young of Clean Water Network (a coalition that brings together environmental groups, businesses, and individuals from around the state) explained that the DEP's revisions "will result in 23 criteria for carcinogenic toxins being weakened. Forty-five new criteria for carcinogenic toxins will be regulated at less-stringent levels than EPA recommends for the national average." Dioxin, mercury, and arsenic aren't even addressed, she said. 

On her blog, Young told her readers, "You should be OK eating Florida fish as long as you don't eat more than 4 oz. a week -- that's about three shrimp." She said she was particularly worried about the effects on children, pregnant women, and populations that eat a lot of fish. Least hurt, she said, would be affluent men who don't eat fish and can afford to buy bottled water. (Marco Rubio, you're in the clear!) 

DEP also proposed changing the methodology by which it measures toxins in the water released by polluters; rather than set a maximum amount of toxins that could be in a single water sample, they'd look at annual or monthly averages. This would allow for increased carcinogenic toxins in Class I, II, and III waters (drinking, shell fishing, swimming, fishing), Young said.  

Young even went so far as to imply that the state would be murdering its citizens if continued pollution is allowed.  "Being a citizen of the state of Florida is not a crime," Young wrote. "The state does not have the legal authority to take human life without probable cause and due process... even to subsidize commercial enterprise by not regulating its discharge of carcinogens down to natural background levels. Without the ability to identfy who will be injured or klled in this state-sponsored cancer lottery, the state will be taking lives."  

She went on with a plea to the governor: "As the final decision maker on this issue, we expect you to cast your vote in the public interest and reject these radical, anti-public health proposals." 

As they opened the letter in Tallahassee, Scott and Vinyard clinked together two ice-cold plastic bottles of Dasani that had been chilled atop frozen dolphin carcasses, and cackled. 

The DEP's Environmental Regulation Commission will meet and decide whether to accept the  the proposed changes sometime in April. Objectors can sign a petition at Change.org

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Deirdra Funcheon