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Seminole Tribe Challenges Water Standards

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Ebyabe via Wikimedia Commons
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida has filed a legal challenge against controversial new state water-quality standards, arguing they don't adequately take into account the amount of fish and other wildlife eaten by tribal members.

The tribe filed the challenge Monday in the state Division of Administrative Hearings, about two weeks after the state Environmental Regulation Commission narrowly approved the standards over the objections of environmentalists. The standards, developed by the Department of Environmental Protection, involve new and revised limits on chemicals in waterways.

But in the legal challenge, the Seminole Tribe said the standards don't adequately take into consideration potential health effects for people who eat fish on a "subsistence basis."

"The proposed rule, which bases human health-based surface water quality standards off of a recreational level of consumption of fish, water fowl, frogs and other aquatic life and does not set standards that recognize and protect human consumption at a subsistence level, adversely affects the Seminole Tribe and its members who continue to exercise their customary and traditional hunting, fishing, trapping and frogging rights on millions of acres of lands and waters across South and Central Florida," the six-page challenge said.

The Department of Environmental Protection, however, tried to dispel such concerns before the Environmental Regulation Commission approved the standards July 26. In a lengthy explanation posted on its website July 25, the department said the criteria would protect people in the state.

"DEP's proposed criteria take into account how, and how much, Floridians eat seafood, drink, shower and swim, and set the limits necessary to protect Floridians from adverse health effects," the online post said. "The criteria consider a range of environmental variables and account for the most at-risk populations, including young children, pregnant women and those whose diets comprise primarily of Florida seafood."

The challenge, filed against the Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Regulation Commission, was assigned to Administrative Law Judge Bram D.E. Canter.

The Environmental Regulation Commission, which is appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, voted 3-2 to approve the first changes in the water-quality standards in nearly a quarter century. The Department of Environmental Protection said the plan, technically a proposed rule, would allow it to regulate more chemicals while updating standards for others.

But environmentalists argued that at least some of the changes would lead to degraded water quality. With the changes needing to go to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for review and approval, some congressional Democrats also sent a letter to the EPA expressing "serious concerns."

Attorneys for the Seminole Tribe are seeking a determination that the proposed rule is invalid, in part arguing it is "arbitrary and capricious, because it sets the criteria at levels that can be met and still cause serious human health impacts to members of the Seminole Tribe and other members of the population who consume fish on a subsistence basis."