Federal judge ends Florida oversight of wetland development

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A federal court has ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated federal law by allowing the state of Florida to manage the state’s wetland permits.

A ruling issued Thursday by U.S. District Judge Randolph D. Moss determined that the state no longer has the authority to issue the permits. The court’s decision ends an agreement between Florida and the federal agency that began in 2020, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed a deal authorizing the state’s EPA to issue wetland permits. become.

Florida was one of three states given that responsibility, along with Michigan and New Jersey.

A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection acknowledged the Tampa Bay Times’ request for comment in an email, but did not receive a response as of late Friday afternoon.

In July, a state agency spokesperson told the Times that the department’s wetland permitting “maximizes the protection of all of Florida’s water resources.”

However, the decision was widely opposed by environmentalists and state residents in 2020. Just months later, conservation groups en masse barred them from filing lawsuits against federal agencies.

Water quality advocates said the state became a rubber stamp for approving construction permits in environmentally sensitive areas, while some local water regulators praised the agency.

This 2022 photo shows great egrets mingling with white ibises and storks hunting in the cypress swamps of Land O Lakes in Pasco County.
This 2022 photo shows great egrets mingling with white ibises and storks hunting in the cypress swamps of Land O Lakes in Pasco County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

In July, Hillsborough County Wetlands Director Michael Lynch told the Times he would approve how the state handles permit applications.

“The state has done a really good job of adopting a new program and implementing it,” Lynch said. “This is a very young program, but what they’ve accomplished is nothing short of amazing.”

The court’s decision on Thursday strengthens federal agencies’ requirements set by Congress in the Endangered Species Act to protect fish, wildlife, and plants that are considered endangered or endangered. It deals with failure to comply.

Karima Schoenhut advised the Sierra Club on this case as a senior staff attorney.

“One of the problems with this whole program is that we’ve created a system where harm to (threatened or endangered species) is approved without any way to verify that the decision is the right one. That’s true,” Schoenhut said in an interview.

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Schoenhut said the permit program has been suspended at this time.

The plaintiffs argue that the program created by Florida was enacted by Congress to protect endangered species and waterways, said Tania Galloni, lead attorney with the Florida office of Earthjustice, a law group representing seven environmental groups. They argued that it was illegal because it was structured to circumvent the applicable law.

“What they (Florida) did was basically work around various federal laws to make the whole system more palatable to Florida,” Galloni said.

Galloni said the state’s process differs from federal law and gives developers more liability protection if endangered species are accidentally injured or killed during construction.

Developers want to ensure that endangered species are protected from lawsuits and liability if they harm them, Galloni said.

In December, environmental nonprofits asked a court to suspend two proposed state permits aimed at reclaiming wetlands for development in Lee and Collier counties.

Elise Bennett, the center’s Florida and Caribbean director, said the organizations do not believe the permit would give a green light to ecological destruction of the habitat of the Florida leopard, a critical endangered species. He said he was concerned that the permit would be suspended until a court ruled on whether the permit program was legal. For biodiversity.

“We thought the permit was harmful,” Bennett said in an interview. “Both proposals were within the core breeding range of the Florida panther.”

Bennett said this week’s ruling should send a signal to other states that they need to comply with federal environmental laws.

“This decision gives us great hope that Florida’s wetlands and wildlife will get the attention they deserve,” Bennett said.

This 2023 photo shows a saltwater pool in the tidal wetland area of ​​Weedon Island Reserve in St. Petersburg.
This 2023 photo shows a saltwater pool in the tidal wetland area of ​​Weedon Island Reserve in St. Petersburg. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Amber Crooks, environmental policy manager for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said the judge’s decision comes at a critical time.

Crooks’ organization was tracking six projects across Southwest Florida awaiting approval from the state.

“If approved, it would impact approximately 1,000 acres of wetlands and more than 8,000 acres of Florida panther habitat, some of the most important remaining habitat for the Florida panther.” Crooks said.

But the ruling came too late for some projects, she added. The state recently approved a permit to house the endangered crested caracara on a portion of the Babcock Ranch in southwest Florida. Crooks’ organization filed public comments opposing the permit, but the project was approved. She said she didn’t know what happened to the bird.

Crooks said he is looking at Florida as an example while other states seek federal permission to take over oversight of wetlands.

“I hope this sends a signal to other states looking to copy this illegal scheme that it doesn’t work,” she said.

Several wrinkles remain in the case. The ruling does not revoke permits previously granted by the state. And the decision left federal agencies open to request a stay of the judge’s ruling, but only for parts that don’t involve the Endangered Species Act.

“When it comes to endangered species, it’s his decision,” Galloni said. “If they wanted to come back and say we should allow the state of Florida to continue processing other permits, like minor permits…he gave them that opportunity.”

Thursday’s ruling is only part of the lawsuit. The remaining cases, which Earthjustice claims center on violations of the Clean Water Act and the Administrative Procedures Act, are ongoing.

“We are fortunate to live in a state that has so much biodiversity, and we intend to continue to do so,” Galloni said.

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