Federal Court Found Federal Agencies failed to comply with Endangered Species Act in Wetland Permitting Program in Florida.

A significant victory for environmental conservation occurred when a Federal Court ruled in favor of multiple environmental groups in a case against the EPA and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife. The case, which dates back to December 2020 during the final days of the Trump Administration, challenged the transfer of the permitting process under section 404 of the Clean Water Act to the State of Florida. The court found that this transfer violated provisions of the Endangered Species Act, which safeguards threatened and endangered species during the permitting process.

In January 2021, seven environmental organizations, represented by Earth Justice, filed a lawsuit against the EPA, contesting the wetland permitting transfer to Florida. This coalition, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, Sierra Club, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Miami Waterkeeper, and the St. Johns Riverkeeper, argued that the move would “degrade and ruin Florida’s natural landscape, all in violation of federal environmental laws.”

While the recent court ruling addressed the violation of the Endangered Species Act, unresolved issues related to the Clean Water Act and Administrative Procedure Act are still ongoing. Restoring the protection provided by the Endangered Species Act is crucial to ensuring that agencies adhere to laws aimed at protecting wetland ecosystems and drinking water across the state.

A preliminary injunction, requested by Earth Justice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club in December of the previous year, came at a crucial time when Florida was in the process of permitting development projects that could have damaged Florida panther habitats and imperiled other species in Southwest Florida, such as the crested caracara. Some of these projects were planned in critical wildlife corridor areas containing essential wetlands.

St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman expressed satisfaction with the court’s recognition that Florida cannot ignore the law regarding endangered species protection.

“St. Johns Riverkeeper is pleased the court recognized that Florida can’t ignore the law when it comes to endangered species protection,” said St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman. “Whenever the state reviews permits from people who want permission to impact our critical wetland ecosystems, they need to follow the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.”*

Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative at Defenders of Wildlife, highlighted the significance of wetlands as the lifeblood of Florida.

“Wetlands are the lifeblood of Florida, providing essential habitat to the world’s only population of the critically endangered Florida panther and many other rare and endemic species, all found within one of the most biologically diverse states in the country,” said Elizabeth Fleming, senior Florida representative at Defenders of Wildlife.*

The transfer of permitting power to the state of Florida was initially proposed during Rick Scott’s administration, aiming to expedite permit issuance, but it wasn’t until DeSantis administration that it came to fruition. However, concerns arose regarding the potential degradation of wetland ecosystems, lack of oversight from federal agencies, and insufficient staffing in Florida to handle the increased workload associated with issuing more development permits.

*As published on news released issued by the Center for Biological Diversity on February 16, 2024 www.biologicaldiversity.org

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