Judge intervenes on Everglades
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
A federal judge, alarmed that Florida lawmakers are about to alter a longstanding agreement to clean up the Everglades, on Wednesday summoned state and federal officials to his Miami courtroom for an emergency hearing.
U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler, who is overseeing the Everglades cleanup, set the hearing for May 2 -- the last scheduled day of the legislative session.
For weeks, powerful state lawmakers have debated whether to delay the deadline for clean up by as much as 20 years.
Congressmen and environmental groups have howled, warning it could unravel an $8-billion deal between the state and federal government to restore the River of Grass. But their concerns have done nothing to derail the proposals.
In his order, Hoeveler wrote that he has been reading "with considerable apprehension" news stories about what state lawmakers were doing to the Everglades cleanup plan and feared that "if we do nothing," lawmakers will change the plan.
"I do not propose to deviate from the settlement agreement," Hoeveler wrote in his one-page order, saying it twice for emphasis.
The fight centers on phosphorus, a pollutant that runs off sugar farms and suburban lawns and can tip the Everglades' natural balance so it becomes a stagnant swamp full of cattails instead of a flowing river of sawgrass.
State law now requires the state to cut back the flow of phosphorus no later than 2006. Although phosphorus has been cut far below its historic high of 300 parts per billion, state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs has said he doubts it can be cut to 10 parts per billion, which is what the Everglades needs, by 2006.
Struhs is pushing a 10-year delay in the deadline, while sugar growers -- who have hired dozens of high-powered lobbyists -- have been pushing for 20 years. Environmentalists and the Miccosukee Tribe, who live in the Everglades, want no delay.
That 2006 deadline was established by a court settlement reached 11 years ago between state and federal officials, a settlement that was approved by Hoeveler (pronounced HOOV-ler). The judge made it clear Wednesday that no matter what the Legislature wants, he's not inclined to cut the state any slack.
Hoeveler's intervention delighted environmentalists.
"Judge Hoeveler has given a pretty strong indication that he doesn't intend to let these legislative shenanigans undo the consent decree that he has already entered in this case," said Charles Lee, senior vice president of Audubon of Florida.
Dexter Lehtinen, a former federal prosecutor and state legislator who represents the Miccosukees, said state officials have only themselves to blame for spurring Hoeveler's highly unusual court order.
During hearings in front of Hoeveler last fall, Lehtinen said, state officials testified that they could in fact meet the 2006 deadline -- contrary to what Struhs and other state officials now say.
"The whole spirit of David Struhs' testimony has got to be upsetting to the judge," Lehtinen said. The judge's order is "a clear message to the Legislature, and it is a real message to the governor."
Some legislators were not interested in hearing it.
"I think the judge is misinformed," said state Sen. Al Lawson, the Tallahassee Democrat sponsoring the Everglades bill in the upper house. He accused environmentalists of giving the judge bad information and stirring up controversy just so they could "make money."
But Senate President Jim King said he had been sufficiently concerned about the bill that he has held it back from being passed by the Senate.
"Whatever fix there needs to be, I can fix it," King, R-Jacksonville, said. House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, did not return calls seeking comment.
Struhs also could not be reached for comment, although DEP spokeswoman Deena Wells said, "We're prepared to appear before the judge and answer any questions."
U.S. Sugar vice president Robert Coker predicted that the hearing will show "that Everglades restoration is not only on schedule, but substantially ahead of schedule" and that environmental groups are merely "crying wolf."
Hoeveler, 80, who was appointed in 1977 by President Jimmy Carter, was once described by the Miami Herald as "revered for his intellect, praised for his fairness and ribbed for his slowness."
Hoeveler has been presiding over the Everglades cleanup case for more than a decade. At one point state and federal officials urged him to close the case, but he decided to keep overseeing it because state officials could someday attempt to undo the agreement.
He is no stranger to controversial cases. He briefly presided over the Elian Gonzalez custody case in 2000, until he suffered a stroke.
In perhaps his best-known case, in 1992 Hoeveler sentenced Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to 40 years in prison for drug smuggling.
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