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Everglades cleanup could be delayed

Legislation seeks to stretch the deadline by 20 years for reducing phosphorus flowing into the Everglades.

Published April 3, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Under political pressure to back off a cleanup plan for the Everglades, Florida's top environmental regulator told state lawmakers Wednesday that scrubbing a pollutant out of South Florida's water should be delayed for 20 years.

David Struhs, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Regulation, said afterward the delay simply acknowledges "political reality."

Environmental activists and the attorney for an American Indian tribe say that would bog down the $8-billion Everglades restoration in lawsuits and erode congressional support for restoration. Yet they held out little hope of stopping it.

"It's as greased as anything I've ever seen," said Eric Draper of Audubon of Florida.

Lawmakers are considering changes to the Everglades Forever Act, which in 1994 set strict deadlines for cleaning up the water flowing into the River of Grass. The act was the result of the settlement of a federal lawsuit against the state for allowing the Everglades to become polluted.

The act was particularly concerned with reducing the amount of phosphorus, a pollutant that for decades has flowed into the Everglades from sugar cane and vegetable farms and the sprawling suburbs of South Florida. At its worst, the amount of phosphorus pouring into the Everglades topped 300 parts per billion, altering the landscape from wildlife-friendly sawgrass to stagnant cattail swamp.

A year ago, Struhs vowed to cut phosphorus to a fraction of that - 10 parts per billion. That tough stance, supported by state and federal scientists, was cheered by environmentalists.

The Everglades Forever Act set 2006 as the deadline for achieving the 10 parts per billion goal. But sugar industry executives and South Florida Water Management District officials say meeting that deadline will be nearly impossible.

Sugar executives have urged a higher number, about 15 parts per billion. Last year the water district published a report that said 15 parts per billion could be allowable.

But last month the district's board endorsed a draft Everglades plan citing that report. Instead of saying that the cleanup would occur, the new plan said it would be achieved "to the maximum extent possible." Instead of 2006, it set a deadline of 2026.

"The result is a significant cost avoidance," said the plan's author, engineer Galen Miller.

The bill, unveiled Wednesday by House Natural Resources Chairman Joe Spratt, R-LaBelle, does not mention 10 or 15 parts per billion. Instead it simply cites the water board plan.

That was enough to convince Struhs to offer a compromise: stick with 10 parts per billion, but extend the deadline to 2026.

"Our original goal was not to amend the Everglades Forever Act," Struhs said. "But the political reality is that we have had a number of efforts in the law and the water management district to effectively convert the 10 parts per billion to the 15."

But extending the deadline is not acceptable to the Miccosukkee Tribe, which lives in the Everglades and has pushed for a fast cleanup. The tribe's attorney, Dexter Lehtinen, said Struhs is bailing out water district officials who have failed to comply with the law, and promised to return to court.

U.S. Sugar vice president Robert Coker said changing the law will "keep us out of the courtroom" by eliminating any challenges to the cleanup plan's stringent deadlines. He said the bill does not change the phosphorus limit. As for the deadline: "We all want to do it as quick as we can."

The committee will take more testimony on the bill today, and Spratt promised a vote on it would occur next week.

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

[Last modified April 3, 2003, 02:44:42]

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