By Amber Crooks, Environmental Policy Manager, Conservancy of Southwest Florida
The Conservancy and our partners, represented by Earthjustice, brought a challenge against the Florida-assumed wetland permitting program. Florida’s program undermines and weakens our most foundational wetland protection and environmental safeguards.
What’s at stake are wetlands across the entirety of Florida, including sensitive ecosystems from Corkscrew to the Big Cypress and beyond. Whatever is decided in this case may set the precedent for other states across the nation.
The challenge was first launched in 2021, after the transfer of authority for what is typically a federal responsibility under the Clean Water Act, was rushed to the state of Florida before a change in administrations.
The transfer of Clean Water Act oversight to Florida has been heralded by the development community as a way to streamline and fast-track development. Allowing the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) to make decisions about wetland dredge-and-fill permits allows developers to evade considerations and protections like those found in the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Earthjustice’s Senior Attorney, Bonnie Malloy, stated “It has been a joy to partner with Conservancy on this important challenge to EPA’s unlawful approval of Florida’s 404 program. Conservancy’s commitment to protecting Florida’s wetlands is unwavering and inspiring. We are privileged to represent Conservancy in this case.”
On October 19, 2023, a hearing took place before the Honorable Judge Randolph Moss in a United States District courtroom in Washington, D.C. The hearing focused on remaining claims in the case, particularly those concerning the state’s less-than-adequate permitting and enforcement standards, and its misidentification of which wetlands and waters it has authority over.
Perhaps the biggest issue at hand is the flimsy process in place to review the impacts of development projects on endangered species and their habitats. The agencies provided a “blank check” on the amount of imperiled wildlife that can be harmed and killed incidental to developments, mines, roadways, and other destructive projects.
In just six proposed development and mining projects before FDEP currently, nearly 1,000 acres of wetlands are at risk of being destroyed. With those same projects, over 8,000 acres of the most important habitat for the endangered Florida panther are also at risk.
FDEP has received or is currently reviewing about 9,130 different applications for projects that impact wetlands across the state of Florida.
The Conservancy will update our members when the Judge renders his decision. Until then, find out more about the case at www.conservancy.org/404.