FL wetlands and waterways face development and potential harm as vacated Trump rules linger

‘This was the last forest in Orlando,’ says ecologist who grew up there

By: - October 18, 2021 7:00 am

This area of the Wekiva River headwaters, as seen in 2015, in Orlando has been cleared for an industrial park project. Critics want FL to do more to protect wetlands. Credit: Wanda Jones

Swaths of wetlands and waterways in Florida left unprotected when the Trump administration weakened federal standards in early 2020 are being developed in Florida — despite a federal ruling that struck down the Trump rules eight weeks ago.

At least 300,000 acres of wetlands and waterways in Florida alone are likely subject to regulation under the stronger, pre-Trump standards, say a trio of environmental lawyers and scientists, but state regulators have announced no change in course since the Aug. 31 federal ruling.

One of those wild, watery places is being cleared for construction right now in Orlando: a 63-acre site known as Princeton Oaks II in Orlando.

“The developer has started clearing that property,” Earthjustice attorney Christina Reichert told the Phoenix.

“This was the last forest in Orlando,” said ecologist Wanda Jones, who said she grew up alongside its trees and wetlands, which inspired her to study, teach and practice environmental conservation.

The Aug. 31 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary Marquez in an Arizona-based case tossed out Trump’s January 2020 federal “Navigable Waters Protection Rule” – which Reichert and Jones say stripped away protection by narrowly defining wetlands and waterways in order to exclude them from protections they once had under Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act.

Felled palm trees and debris at a construction site for an industrial park in Orlando. Credit: Wanda Jones

Marquez warned in her ruling that “serious environmental harm” could result from Trump rule remaining in place.

Acting on that ruling, Reichert quickly wrote letters from Earthjustice to the developer, to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and to the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) to abandon the Trump standard, enforce the stricter standard, and halt projects such as the industrial park at Princeton Oaks II,  given her conviction that it qualifies for protection under the stricter standard.

Otherwise, by all accounts, the project has all the permits it requires to proceed uninterrupted.

Nearly two months later, Reichert has received no response, nor has development of the site ceased.

Jones said it was hard for her to see an adjacent 60-acre site in her community leveled previously and harder still to watch the remaining site being scoured when she believes it is entitled to federal, state and local protection.

“This entire area was protected under the Clean Water Act,” she said. “We always had healthy trees and green grass.”

The site is being developed as phase II of an industrial park by Princeton Oaks Industrial Investors II, LLC, which is affiliated with Foundry Commercial. Personnel there did not immediately respond to messages seeking comments.

The Phoenix repeatedly asked the state DEP by phone and email how many Florida projects and acres may be affected by the Aug. 31 ruling and whether DEP has halted any projects or changed course in any way. The response, given twice since Sept. 8:

“We are aware of the ruling and actively working together with our federal partners to determine how this ruling affects our state and any potential changes to existing regulations,” wrote DEP Press Secretary Alexandra Kuchta. “The department is continuing to administer the state 404 program.”

Reichert said those statements clarify nothing, but the phrase “any potential changes” suggests to her that DEP has not changed how it is regulating wetlands and waterways.

This is how the woods looked before construction began. Credit: Wanda Jones

Like Reichert, the Phoenix sought but did not receive clarification from the EPA about whether state regulators governed by the Clean Water Act should in the interim follow the 2020 Trump standard that was vacated or revert to the previous, tougher standard.

“Our position is that following the law means telling Florida to apply the former … standard while EPA does its rulemaking,” Reichert said.

Meanwhile, the federal EPA is taking public comments on establishing new rules that better comply with the federal Clean Water Act. Sierra Club of Florida is among those that have submitted extensive comments.

Diana Umpierre, organizing representatives for the Sierra Club’s Everglades Restoration Campaign and Our Wild America program, said the Trump-era waterways standard was the weakest yet and that wetlands around the nation, including parts of the internationally renowned Florida Everglades, are at risk of permanent damage while regulators debate the issue.

Umpierre said the regulators should choose to be more protective of wetlands, not less so, to avoid the environmental harm foreseen by Judge Marquez.

“This is part of restoring the wetlands,” Umpierre said. “Nature is complex. Water is complex. That is why we have scientists.

“Every time we degrade our environment, there is a cost,” she said.

Sierra Club, Earthjustice and other environment-focused groups have filed comments to the EPA seeking high standards for protecting wetlands and waterways.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and National Association of Home Builders are among the parties that have filed comments in opposition.

The EPA has received more than 32,000 comments on new protective regulations for wetlands and waterways.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper. Contact her at [email protected]