TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The federal government granted Florida’s request for wider authority over wetland development, a move announced Thursday that came under immediate fire by environmentalist who worry that the country's largest network of wetlands could be at risk of being further degraded.
The announcement by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler was long sought by developers and Republican allies, who argued that the layers of regulatory scrutiny were cumbersome, expensive and unnecessary. Supporters touted the move as a step that would streamline the permitting process when property owners seek to develop wetlands.
During a news conference in Washington, Wheeler said the state had met the high bar necessary to assume the role of handling the permitting process.
“This action allows Florida to effectively evaluate and issue permits under the Clean Water Act to support the health of Florida's waters, residents and economy," he said.
“By taking over this permit program, Florida will be able to integrate its dredging and fill permitting with their traditional water quality and monitoring programs,” he said.
At around statehood in 1845, the state had about 20 million acres (8 million hectares) of wetlands. By 1996, Florida had lost nearly half of that because of dredging, draining and filling. The state's population growth has spawned a boom in development, which has prompted much of that destruction.
Florida accounts for about a fifth of the country’s wetlands and includes the Everglades, among the state’s most important environmental jewels. A massive restoration project costing billions of dollars is currently underway to repair the damage to the Everglades, including the draining of huge swaths of its marshes.
Wetlands serve a key role in the ecosystem, including in helping maintain water quality and absorbing flood waters.
“We are passionate about our resources in the state of Florida. Whenever we can have our team of scientists and permitters issue the permits that allows us to be in the driver's seat, that's what we want to do,” said Florida's secretary of environmental protection, Noah Valenstein, who traveled to Washington for Thursday's announcement.
Valenstein said the state would respect “the underpinnings and protections of law and the Clean Water Act” and would use his department's local expertise to drive development decisions.
But that worries environmental groups who say they may have fewer venues — possibly including federal courts — to challenge projects that could undermine sensitive ecosystems.
“This is a parting gift to developers from the outgoing administration in Washington in coordination with the sitting administration in Florida," said Tania Galloni, the managing attorney in Florida for Earthjustice.
“The fact is that Florida’s proposed program to take over wetlands permitting doesn’t comply with federal environmental laws,” she said. "It’s about destroying wetlands faster and cheaper at a time when we need more protection, not less.”
Florida officials pushed through the request ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Permitting oversight of wetlands would shift to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection just weeks before Biden’s inauguration next month.
Environmentalists had hoped to delay the decision to allow the Biden administration to weigh in. Environmental groups have vowed legal challenges, arguing that the application was rushed and failed to take into account a host of issues, including the state's ability to adequately perform the environmental analysis that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and other federal agencies had performed.
“Those concerned with Florida’s environment have no reason to believe the state of Florida is prepared to manage critical wetlands permitting in a transparent, apolitical manner,” Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried said in a statement.
Florida becomes the third state to gain broader permitting authority of wetlands under the federal Clean Water Act. Michigan and New Jersey had been granted similar authority decades ago.
Florida's request to gain sole permitting authority was launched under the administration of Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, who said the EPA's action does away with “duplicative rules on the state and federal levels" that, he said, “were a waste of taxpayer dollars, and created confusion for everyone involved.”
Current Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, took on that mantle and earlier this year formally petitioned the federal government to transfer that authority.