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    Even opponents oppose changes to Glades bill

    Environmental and sugar industry interests decry revisions in the Senate's bid to delay restoration.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 29, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE - Saying they were making changes that satisfy everyone, state senators approved a new version of a bill delaying the deadline for cleaning up Everglades pollution.

    But immediately after the 38-0 vote, lobbyists for Audubon of Florida and U.S. Sugar criticized it roundly. A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., said it could still jeopardize federal support for the $8-billion Everglades restoration plan.

    Sen. Al Lawson, a Tallahassee Democrat who is sponsoring the measure, persuaded his colleagues to adopt three amendments he said were written by the U.S. Justice Department to satisfy concerns about the bill.

    "What we're doing is accommodating the Justice Department," Lawson said.

    But a spokesman for the Justice Department said the agency didn't write the amendments.

    "The Justice Department is not helping to write any revision amendments nor were we asked to," said spokesman Blane Rethmeier.

    The amendments actually were from the state Department of Environmental Protection, which hoped to mollify the federal government, a spokeswoman said.

    "It might have been easy for that to be miscommunicated," said DEP spokeswoman Deena Wells.

    Lawson said he had been misled. "The DEP said these are the amendments that the Justice Department wanted," he said. "I guess the DEP misrepresented them."

    Audubon lobbyist Charles Lee said some senators might not have voted for the amendments or the bill had they known the truth.

    Meanwhile DEP Secretary David Struhs has written a letter to assure officials of another federal agency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: "I have not, and will not, prematurely characterize EPA's position on these questions."

    Struhs was quoted in The New Republic magazine last week as saying that the EPA's regional administrator in Atlanta was "enthusiastic" about the latest version of the bill. No federal agency has taken an official position on the bill.

    That might change Friday.

    A federal judge who has overseen the cleanup for more than a decade has called an emergency hearing in Miami because he said he had been reading news reports about the proposed Everglades legislation with "considerable apprehension."

    U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler said he would not stand for any changes to the court settlement that set the stage for dramatic improvements in the Everglades' water quality.

    In 1988, the Justice Department sued Florida, charging that state officials had allowed water carrying large amounts of phosphorus to flow into the Everglades from sugar farms and suburban lawns. The pollutant wiped out native sawgrass and turned the River of Grass into a swamp of stagnant cattails.

    State officials agreed to settle the case and in 1994 the Legislature passed the Everglades Forever Act, setting a timetable for cleaning up the phosphorus. The deadline is 2006, and so far the cleanup has greatly reduced the phosphorus, though not to the level that scientists say is needed.

    A bill unveiled halfway through the session this month called for delaying the deadline 20 years and allowing a higher amount of pollution. The House bill, supported by the sugar industry, passed one committee but has been on hold ever since.

    House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, said he was awaiting the Senate's vote. Now, he said, "I'll call the governor and ask him what he thinks about it, and then let the members vote it up or down."

    The Senate bill calls for delaying the deadline until 2013 and says phosphorus should be cleaned up "to the maximum extent practicable."

    While Florida is supposed to be cleaning up the phosphorus, the state also is a partner with Congress in paying half the cost of an ambitious plan to replumb the River of Grass and stop the loss of billions of gallons of water that once flowed through its sloughs.

    But Shaw and other members of Congress say the legislation could cost Florida congressional support for that project, which Gov. Jeb Bush has cited as the centerpiece of his environmental record.

    - Times staff writer Lucy Morgan and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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