Fried seeks EPA help to prevent ‘catastrophic’ damage to FL wetlands

Related wetlands bill in Legislature awaits action by DeSantis

By: - May 12, 2022 2:30 pm

Florida’s Green Swamp, a treasure of cypress domes and forested wetlands. Credit: Southwest Florida Water Management District

Federal environmental regulators should take over wetlands permitting in Florida to prevent “catastrophic” environmental damage where development and sensitive lands are in conflict, says Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Nikki Fried.

At issue is a late-2020 decision, in the final months of the Trump administration, to transfer authority over wetlands permitting from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Fried opposed that transfer at the time, along with environmental groups who said it would lead to more development of wetlands.

She has renewed her objection in light of legislation waiting to be signed into law that she says would further erode wetland protections in Florida.

In a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan, Fried wrote Wednesday that the 2022 bill awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ approval or veto would fast-track wetlands destruction atop the transfer of wetlands-permitting authority in 2020 from the federal EPA to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“The Florida Legislature has now passed an industry-backed law that has created a fast-track for wetlands destruction by allowing energy companies to review and expedite environmental resource permits,” Fried wrote to Regan.

“This bill [Senate Bill 2508] will be catastrophic for Florida’s environment if signed into law, and it is imperative that we do everything at both the state and federal levels to prevent corporations from being able to rubber-stamp their own plans to destroy our wetlands.”

Near the end of the Trump administration, Fried testified against the transfer of wetlands-permitting authority from the feds to the state, predicting it would undermine protection of Florida’s sensitive natural resources.

In January, Fried wrote to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and National Park Service Director Charles F. Sams III with concerns about wetlands damage and inadequate mitigation related to proposed oil drilling in Big Cypress National Preserve.

“Shifting oversight of this permitting from the federal government to the state has already proven to be a disaster,” Fried wrote, saying the state DEP does not have the staff, expertise or “desire” to do the job of wetlands protection right.

The letter continues: “Our wetlands are already facing serious risks due to climate change and have suffered massive losses over the past several decades. … I am strongly urging you to reverse the Trump Administration’s misguided and harmful decision by restoring the EPA’s Clean Water Act’s Section 404 authority for permitting in protected wetlands within the State of Florida as soon as possible before even more environmental destruction occurs under FDEP’s watch.”

Meanwhile, Florida DEP, controlled by the governor’s office, is a named defendant in a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice on behalf of environmental organizations seeking to reverse the transfer of authority. A reversal of the decision under the Trump administration would allow the Biden administration’s EPA to resume control of the program. Florida is one of only three states where the EPA does not control dredge-and-fill activities in wetlands protected by the federal Clean Water Act.

That lawsuit, filed in January 2021, is pending in federal court in Washington, D.C.

On Tuesday, Earthjustice filed another federal lawsuit involving Florida waters. That action, filed in federal court in Orlando, demands the EPA intervene under the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act to force Florida to set and enforce stricter water-quality standards in the Indian River Lagoon, where pollution has killed seagrasses, causing hundreds of manatees there to starve to death. More than 1,100 manatees died statewide, mostly due to pollution-fueled destruction of its primary food source.

Fried and DeSantis are running for governor in 2022.

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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.