Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The EPA and Miami-Dade County fumble on climate change ... by gimleteye

On climate change adaptation, the rubber meets the road in the most highly developed areas of Florida that are also flood prone and virtually at sea level. Consider, the following.

The EPA is the chief federal agency advancing policy agendas related to climate change. In critical ways, EPA is failing the true test of both its commitment and authority, under federal laws. Granted, Congress has proven notoriously unwilling to use federal legislation to mandate steps that could have avoided climate change's cascading effects. The rationales offered to the public; everything from outright denial to pollution from China and India.

In Florida, it has taken a series of Clean Water Act lawsuits by environmental groups to bring EPA to confront violations of law by local government on water quality. Absent federal lawsuits and despite favorable rulings by the federal judiciary, the EPA is a grudging enforcer of laws passed by Congress and approved by presidents.

As the impacts of climate change accelerate, laws governing water and air quality -- under the regulatory responsibilities of the EPA -- are inevitably colliding with rising seas. Put another way: accommodating, adapting, and mitigating the costs of climate change are running straight in the buzz saw of local politics. That level of government in the United States proves, every day, it is least capable of adjusting horizons beyond the requirements for re-election.

Yesterday, Chief Judge of the Federal Court for the Southern District of Florida, Frederico Moreno, ruled in favor of Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper’s motion for unrestricted intervention in the EPA’s Clean Water Act pollution enforcement case against Miami-Dade County. The issue involves wastewater infrastructure that serves more than 2 million residents and visitors, including cruise ship passengers who pass through Miami without giving a second thought that Miami-Dade is the most populous and the state's most politically influential.

If it is true that we can't do without water -- no one disputes that -- , then it is also true that civilized society can't do without efficient, non-polluting wastewater disposal. It far from a sexy subject, but not a single benefit of industrial society would be available without a wastewater system that protects people's health and the environment.

In 1994, after a prolonged federal Clean Water Act lawsuit by Sierra Club, Friends of the Everglades and other environmentalists, Miami-Dade county entered into a consent agreement with the US EPA to clean up its act; an act that included using pipes to flush sewage into nearby ocean waters. In 2012, nearly twenty years later, environmentalists sued again when EPA's analysis showed the county wastewater infrastructure to be in a state of decrepit, alarming decline. The manifestations that finally attracted EPA's intervention included frequent sewer line breaks and treatment plants whose conditions were nothing short of disgusting.

At least a billion and a half dollars were deemed necessary, through this latest "tranche" of negotiations, to simply bring the wastewater system up to codes. But there is a further problem: climate change.

Higher sea levels, certain to afflict the world's coast lines in coming decades, put special pressure on Florida's wastewater infrastructure. Here, because of the porous underlying geology, water tables rise quickly and ebb -- depending on rainfall, flooding conditions, but also salt water intrusion. The pressure of incoming seas and over-pumping aquifers has already turned some coastal well field to salt. We can't drink salt water, and under the enormous pressures of salt water intrusion, Miami-Dade's complex wastewater handling pipes and pumps will simply collapse.

While this is not an abstract threat, it is one that elected officials -- at all levels of government -- are having great difficulty grasping. The explanation is also simple. Politics flows to campaign contributions the same way water flows downhill.

Those campaign contributions reinforce a status quo that claims one of its highest priorities to be stable, predictable regulations. This turns out to be a chief complaint by business groups and special interests that dominate Tallahassee and Congress: that EPA's federal regulatory mandates impose excessive burdens because they introduce unpredictability to mortgage cycles and depreciation schedules. Those same businesses -- especially ones that profit by serving the nation's infrastructure needs -- are paradoxically resistant, to the point of investing in the crippling of environmental rules and regulations, despite science and facts pointing to sea level rise impacts within the very time decadal frames they stubbornly attach to business cycles.

Since its inception in the early 1970s, the EPA has been under withering pressure by business groups, including the US Chamber of Commerce. In recent decades, even under Democratic control of Congress and the White House, the agency has been afflicted with a kind of bipolar disorder on its most important regulatory issues. It is hard to conclude that the federal government's response to the greatest threat to civilization -- climate change -- is anything out of the ordinary.

It's website breezily offers: "The Facts: Do you have questions about climate change? Explore the answers to some of the most commonly answered questions, here." But it easier to find a needle in a haystack than political courage at EPA. Its administrators and senior officials, including those at the US Department of Justice, would respond: it is not our role to show political courage.

And so Miami-Dade County touts its fleet of hybrid cars and various green shoots. While blue ribbon panels, engineers and experts resolutely discuss rising sea levels -- even the eventual incorporation of detailed elevation maps in land use maps is treated like a state secret -- local government officials dawdle and twiddle their thumbs. EPA, on the one hand, is the nation's top communicator of climate change and, on the regulatory hand can scarcely lift a finger. If you are a small polluter, watch out. But if you are a big polluter, you are held to a different standard.

Today, thirteen members of the Miami-Dade County Commission are racing to vote on May 21st, on what the Waterkeeper calls its "zero sea level rise consent decree" with EPA. The County has not heeded any of Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper’s nationally-recognized experts, who counsel against parts of the plan and in favor of much more rigorous sea level rise and storm impact studies to inform the BOCC’s multi-billion dollar capital decisions on its wastewater treatment plants.

EPA says it would not be doing anything to support climate readiness in the Miami-Dade consent decree. It is deploying a fig leaf of a disguise, arguing that the BBWK’s sewer case is really a NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) case brought forward by local Key Biscayne residents who want to move the county's major sewage treatment plant away from its neighbor, Virginia Key.

Recently, 16 national and local environmental groups stated otherwise in a letter to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. The groups implored the mayor to take into account the taxpayer interest in protecting billions of dollars of investment in infrastructure from destruction by implacable rising seas.

BBWK says, "This fight is about sound science and engineering and proper planning in light of future climate change impacts on Miami-Dade County – not NIMBY. If EPA as an Agency really believes that this is a NIMBY case to get a wastewater treatment plant relocated off of Virginia Key, then its staff has fundamental problems with both reading and listening... BBWK is advocating sound science and engineering in the County’s planning process for the required sewer system fix.

The collapse of EPA in Miami-Dade County is a dismal predictor of what climate change adaptation really means. If this is the best the wealthiest nation in the world can do, imagine the prospects for change in other rapidly developing nations. The forecast: it will take many and even repetitive Superstorm Sandy's -- like the one that devastated parts of the New York and New Jersey coast -- before the objectors melt away.


Marshmaid said...

I fear the sad truth lies in the last sentence

Anonymous said...

It is a sad, sad state of affairs when the agency that is designed to "protect" us, will not.

Anonymous said...

Special meeting of the County Commission tomorrow, Thursday,at 11:30 AM. A "Committee of the Whole" will take up the $4.2 Billion bond issue and a resolution on rate adjustments after the Finance Committee refused to approve of the items yesterday.

The County Administration had to withdraw the items from the Finance Committee when it became clear a vote would fail and kill the entire bond program. Moss, Zapata and Bovo were not in favor of moving the items forward.

Expect more confusion tomorrow.

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