TALLAHASSEE — In a relatively rare move, the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday announced approval of a plan to hand over federal permitting authority to Florida for projects that affect wetlands.
Supporters praised the move as helping reduce duplicative state and federal permitting and giving Florida more control over such decisions. Florida is only the third state, joining Michigan and New Jersey, that have received the authority, according to the EPA.
“Our waters and wetlands are critical to our economy and way of life in Florida. As such, it is important for the state to be in charge and take the lead in their protection,” state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said in a statement released by the EPA. “We are pleased that with the assumption, Florida scientists and permitters will now be accountable for state and federal wetlands permits. DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) staff know the state’s resources best and have the expertise to ensure their protection.”
But Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat, and some environmental groups criticized the decision, saying it will reduce protections for wetlands. They also pointed to the announcement’s timing as Republican President Donald Trump is slated to leave office next month.
“This is a parting gift to developers from the outgoing administration in Washington in coordination with the sitting administration in Florida,” Tania Galloni, managing attorney for Florida for the environmental law group Earthjustice. “The fact is that Florida’s proposed program to take over wetlands permitting doesn’t comply with federal environmental laws. It’s about destroying wetlands faster and cheaper at a time when we need more protection, not less. We’re considering our options.”
The issue involves permitting dredge and fill activities under part of the federal Clean Water Act. Such activities, for example, can occur in building homes, commercial developments and utility projects, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
Florida lawmakers in 2018 overwhelmingly approved a bill that was an initial step in trying to move authority for the permitting from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the state. This August, Gov. Ron DeSantis submitted a package to the EPA seeking approval.
The Department of Environmental Protection also administers what is known as the state Environmental Resource Permitting program. On its website, the department said the change approved Thursday will reduce duplicative reviews of projects because about 85 percent of review requirements overlap between the state and federal programs.
“This designation is great news for the state of Florida — it gives our state the ability to make the best decisions for our unique environment, with input from the public and environmental stakeholders,” U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, who was governor at the time the 2018 bill passed, said in a prepared statement. “The duplicative rules on the state and federal levels were a waste of taxpayer dollars and created confusion for everyone involved, which is why I fought to streamline this process.”
But Fried called it a “dangerous mistake” to transfer permitting authority from the Army Corps of Engineers to the Department of Environmental Protection, which she described as underfunded and understaffed.
“Both the DeSantis and Trump administrations have demonstrated a disregard for transparency and disinterest in protecting our waters,” Fried said in a statement. “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.”