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    Senate: Give Glades cleanup 10 more years

    That's 10 years fewer than the House wants. Washington watches nervously as the two restoration bills evolve.

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 23, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- A controversial Everglades pollution cleanup bill, which has spawned television attack ads and a political scuffle between Tallahassee and Washington, got more moderate Tuesday -- at least in the Senate.

    A Senate committee made changes to extend a key Everglades cleanup deadline by 10 years, instead of the 20-year delay in the House bill. The bill also holds firm to a phosphorus pollution limit favored by environmentalists (10 parts per billion), instead of a looser standard sought by sugar companies (15 parts per billion.)

    "Now it's a green bill," said David Struhs, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

    Not everyone agreed. Environmentalists and sugar growers left grumbling.

    Since the Senate and House bills differ, the legislation will probably change more as it heads to the floor in both chambers.

    Sugar growers sought protection against government seizure of their lands by eminent domain, but the Senate committee refused. Environmentalists said the legal language in the bill still gives too much wiggle room on deadlines. One chief concern: The second phase of cleanup can't begin until the plan goes back to the Legislature for approval in the future. In Washington, lawmakers are closely watching what happens in Florida because the federal government and the state are splitting the cost of the $8.4-billion effort to clean up the Everglades. It is the largest environmental restoration project ever attempted in the United States.

    The main issue of disagreement is a 2006 deadline to reduce phosphorus, a pollutant that tips the marsh's natural balance so it grows cattails instead of sawgrass. Although phosphorus levels have dropped dramatically during the initial stages of the cleanup, getting to 10 parts per billion won't happen by the 2006 deadline set in the 1994 state-federal agreement, Struhs said.

    The state favors a 10-year delay, sugar growers want 20 more years, and environmentalists want no delay.

    "It's hard to look at this bill and say it's going to change the state's commitment to Everglades restoration," said state Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, the bill's sponsor.

    Still, uncertainty in Florida is making some U.S. senators and representatives nervous about getting federal dollars for Everglades restoration.

    U.S. Sen Bob Graham, D-Florida, said the Legislature's recent moves on the Everglades have created a "very suspicious environment" in Washington over the project's future.

    "Several of the key appropriators have raised questions as to whether this indicates that Florida is not serious about saving the Everglades," Graham said during a visit to Tallahassee Tuesday. "If the federal government bailed out, then that would mean either that the state would be picking up the full cost of Everglades restoration or that Everglades restoration would be an unrealized dream.

    "I'm particularly concerned about the way in which this issue emerged. I believe that in dealing with a fragile partnership ... the cardinal rule is no surprises. The federal Corps of Engineers, the Department of the Interior, members of Congress shouldn't have to read in your newspapers about what's happening."

    -- Times staff writer Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

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