FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Despite a recent study warning pregnant women to limit exposure to water from Lake Okeechobee, the Environmental Protection Agency took a step Thursday toward allowing farms and cities to continue to send polluted water into the lake.
The EPA proposed a rule that would make clear that pollution-discharge permits aren't needed to simply move water from one place to another. The regulation would apply to the canals along the lake's southern rim, which deliver contaminated water from sugar cane fields, vegetable farms and cities.
The Florida Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Tribe have sued to stop the practice, which they say brings pesticides, fertilizers, oil and grease to the lake. They contend that the South Florida Water Management District, which runs the canal system, needs a federal pollution-discharge permit, a requirement that would entail a lengthy review process.
The district, which is trying to control the pollution, says it needs to be able to move water into the lake to prevent flooding. The suit is pending in Miami federal court.
But on Thursday, the EPA said that water transfers were excluded from federal pollution-discharge permit requirements and that such transfers were common in irrigation, flood control, hydropower and environmental restoration.
A draft study by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said pregnant women in South Bay and Pahokee should avoid inhaling water vapor during showers and baths. Local water plants treat lake water with chlorine, which reacts with algae and organic materials -- partly brought through the canals as agricultural runoff -- to form cancer-causing chemicals, according to the study.
Nicholas Gutierrez Jr., a member of the water management district's board, said the district was working hard to clean up the water through such measures as filtering marshes.
"We're not saying the water going into the state is pristine," he said. "But allow us to deal with it, without inserting another layer of government bureaucracy."
But he said the district needed a free hand to pump water into the lake when necessary to prevent flooding: "Part of our responsibility is to ensure the safety of thousands of people who live around the lake."
The EPA will accept comments for 45 days on its plan.