When the St. Johns River broke its banks during Hurricane Irma, it wasn’t just homeowners caught unprepared.
The historic flooding also inundated industrial operations, like factories and power plants.
The impact on sewage systems is well documented – and frankly hard to ignore. But Irma’s rains also flooded industrial wastewater ponds, causing tons of accidental pollution.
It’s not clear if those polluters will be held to account. A pair of letters from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to state regulators at the Department of Environmental Protection suggests they may get a pass.
The first letter, dated Sept. 10, says it is a response to an “emergency request … for relief” from DEP. The letter specifically addressed electric companies, which were hard hit by the storm and struggling to restore power to the southern part of the state.
The letter assured the state’s utilities that they will not be punished for a range of environmental violations, including bypassing air pollution controls or exceeding emission limits. The goal, the letter says, is to “facilitate the expeditious restoration of lost electrical service.”
A second letter, sent Sept. 12, is titled Hurricane Irma Related Relief. The letter essentially absolves anyone with a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit – basically any large-scale polluter of Florida’s rivers or the ocean.
Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman says none of her colleagues at the state or national level have seen a letter like the recent ones from EPA.
“It is unusual,” she says, “and one of the reasons it's unusual is there are already provisions within these permits to allow for storm events. This seems to relax those permit conditions even more.”
Rinaman notes that all wastewater discharge permits contain exceptions for emergency circumstances, like 100-year floods.
“I don’t understand the need for the letter,” she says. “We’re concerned about [regulations] getting too relaxed, and allowing more pollution than would be necessary.”
EPA does say in its first letter it will require an accounting of any excess pollution. The second letter makes no such request.
In a statement, DEP told First Coast News that “robust” monitoring and reporting requirements for all facilities remain in effect. Those reports can be accessed through the agency’s online database or by request.
EPA did not respond before deadline, but says in its initial letter its goal is to work with the state during “circumstances beyond reasonable control.” It also says there may be other unforeseen circumstances ahead that require additional waivers.
Rinaman says the concept of blanket waivers is concerning.
“It’s puzzling. It just seems it’s EPA’s way of really siding with industry during this event, as opposed to really monitoring and focusing on the extent of the damage.”