FL groups move to block ‘rush’ by outgoing EPA authorities to offload wetlands regulation

An example of Florida wetlands protected from development by the U.S. Clean Water Act. Credit: Julie Hauserman

A lawsuit filed Thursday to stop transfer of wetlands permitting from federal agencies to a state agency says Florida cannot afford to take on the role of fast-tracking development permit reviews.

State legislators this week reviewed Florida’s financial picture, showing that the state faces a budget shortfall of at least $2.1 billion.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S District Court in Washington, D.C., by Earthjustice, an environmental-law organization, on behalf of seven organizations in Florida that advocate for environmental protection and conservation of natural resources.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Dec. 17 that it would transfer authority for wetlands permitting in Florida to the state, ahead of the EPA transition from leaders appointed by President Donald Trump to leaders nominated by President-elect Joe Biden.

“Developers have called this the ’holy grail’ because it would make it easier, faster, and cheaper for them to get permits for big projects with less oversight and accountability for environmental impacts,” said Tania Galloni, Earthjustice managing attorney for Florida, in a prepared statement.

Outgoing EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler

The EPA regulates the permits sought by developers and others requesting to fill sensitive marshes, cypress forests, ponds and other wetlands protected by Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act.

The lawsuit accuses EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler of improperly rushing to transfer the important authority to Florida before Trump, who appointed him, leaves office. It asks the court to immediately put the transfer on hold.

EPA Administrator nominee Michael Regan

On the same day the EPA greenlighted the transfer of authority to state government, Biden announced he would appoint Michael Regan, North Carolina’s environment secretary and a former EPA official under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, to replace Wheeler as head of the EPA.

On Friday, Biden’s team announced its nomination of Janet McCabe for the No. 2 post at EPA. She is “an environmental law and policy expert, currently serving as a Professor of Practice at the Indiana University McKinney School of Law and Director of the IU Environmental Resilience Institute, where she started as Assistant Director for Policy and Implementation in 2017,” according to bio material on the president-elect’s website BuildBackBetter.gov.

Earthjustice is representing the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, Miami Waterkeeper, and St. Johns Riverkeeper.