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Florida Proposes Tripling Amount Of Benzene That Can Be Polluted Into State Waters

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

For the first time in over 25 years, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is proposing to revise its restrictions on what toxic chemicals can be discharged into surface water — but environmentalists worry that the proposed standards, which would triple the amount of a toxic chemical called benzene allowed to be discharged into surface waters like rivers and lakes, are meant more to entice fracking companies than keep Floridians safe.

If we had the opportunity to improve the regulations of toxics, why aren’t we taking the advice that the EPA is giving?

According to the Tallahassee Democrat, the Florida DEP is currently either updating, or creating for the first time, standards for 82 various toxic substances — many of which are known carcinogens. Of those 82 chemicals, the vast majority would, under the DEP’s revised standards, have lower standards than those recommended by the EPA. And of the 43 chemicals that are already regulated, the Tallahassee Democrat reports that “a couple dozen” will have limits higher than what is currently allowed. Under the Clean Water Act, states are supposed to revise and update the standards and limits for toxic chemicals, though Florida has not done this since 1990.

The DEP says that the new standards would not translate to concentrations of chemicals high enough to impact public health. But, during one of three workshops held in conjunction with the proposal, members of the public in Tallahassee voiced serious concerns over the safety of the standards.

The DEP should be pushing for even more stringent criteria than what we have now rather than trying to weaken them

“The DEP should be pushing for even more stringent criteria than what we have now rather than trying to weaken them,” Dr. Ron Saff, a Tallahassee allergist and immunologist, said during the workshop. “Your job is to protect Floridians, not to poison us.”

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Tom Larson, state conservation chair for Sierra Club Florida, echoed Saff’s concerns, though the Sierra Club was not able to participate in the workshop.

“We are concerned about the direction the DEP seems to be taking on this matter,” Larson told ThinkProgress. “If we had the opportunity to improve the regulations of toxics, why aren’t we taking the advice that the EPA is giving? Why are we developing rationale to suggest that in Florida, the risks are lower? I don’t think that’s wise.”

One major point of contention for environmentalists is the fact that the revised standards would allow much higher levels of benzene than currently allowed. Benzene is a chemical used in fracking, and a well-known carcinogen. Under the revised standards, allowable amounts of benzene would increase three-fold.

Fracking — the process of using high-pressure chemically-laced water to break apart shale and release pockets of oil and gas — has been a hotly debated issue in Florida. At the beginning of the year, the Florida legislature tried to pass a bill that would have allowed fracking to take place throughout the state as early as 2017, and would have banned local bans on fracking, though that bill was eventually shut down by the Florida Senate.

Fracking’s Total Environmental Impact Is Staggering, Report FindsClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File The body of evidence is growing that fracking is not only bad for the…thinkprogress.orgThe DEP’s proposal to raise allowable levels of benzene — often found in fracking waste water — has led some environmentalists to accuse the DEP of revising the standards to help make Florida a more attractive location for fracking companies.

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“All this is about is that somebody wants to pollute,” Dr. Lonnie Draper, president of the Florida chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, told the Tallahassee Democrat. “And in this case, it’s probably the fracking industry.”

The DEP, for its part, rejected those claims, telling attendees at the workshop that the department had “no pressure to affect the benzene criteria” and that increases in allowable benzene are “not connected” to fracking. As of publication, the Florida DEP had not responded to ThinkProgress’ request for comment.

The proposed standards would also leave certain toxic chemicals unregulated, or allowable at levels much higher than recommended by the EPA.

Arsenic, for instance, would be allowed at levels 1,000 times higher for potable water than recommended by the EPA. Dioxin, a highly toxic compound, would not be regulated.

“The DEP will say we’re regulating more than twice as many chemicals as we have in the past, but there is many more that they are yet to address and regulate, and many of those are dangerous and disturbing, such as dioxin,” Larson said.

Linda Young, executive director of the Florida Clean Water Network, told the Tallahassee Democrat that the proposed standards could not only threaten public and environmental health, but damage tourism, a main pillar of Florida’s economy.

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“We’re threatening our real-estate values, our seafood industry and our tourism economy for the benefit of a handful of large corporations that want to externalize their operating costs by dumping their toxins in our waters,” Young told the Democrat. “No one wants this except for the polluters.”

Discharging toxic chemicals into streams, lakes, and coastal waters could be especially troublesome for Floridians, given their state’s troubles with tidal flooding, storm surge, and sea level rise. That means that even if the toxic substances make their way to the ocean, there’s no guarantee that Florida residents won’t have to contend with the polluted water eventually.

Update:

This post has been updated to include comments from the Sierra Club Florida.