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Slow Glades cleanup nettles judge

He warns state and U.S. agencies that "I'm running out of patience" with missed phosphorus reduction goals.

Associated Press
Published May 12, 2005

MIAMI - A federal judge overseeing the cleanup of the Everglades expressed frustration and doubt Wednesday that the U.S. and state governments will meet tough phosphorus standards by next year's deadline, despite their multibillion-dollar effort.

"Chances are, future requirements are not going to be met," U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno said. "I'm running out of patience."

Moreno's comments came at a hearing on claims by the Miccosukee Tribe and a coalition of nine environmental groups that the state and federal governments have violated the 1992 court settlement by repeatedly allowing phosphorous into the Everglades in excess of the agreement's standards.

The tribe and environmentalists also contend that the 30-year, $8.4-billion federal-state restoration effort is unlikely to further reduce phosphorous runoff to a more stringent standard as required by Dec. 31, 2006.

Phosphorous from South Florida's farms, dairies and suburbs is blamed for adding nutrients that upset the environmental balance of the Everglades and the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in western Palm Beach County.

"We know today they cannot possibly meet the long-term deadlines," said Dexter Lehtinen, a former U.S. attorney who is representing the Miccosukee Tribe and wants Moreno to enforce the limits.

Lawyers for the U.S. Interior Department, state Department of Environmental Protection and South Florida Water Management District urged Moreno not to find that the restoration efforts so far are in violation of the court agreement. They said more than 10,000 acres of water treatment area would be added in coming months to the 30,000 acres in place, as well as improved restoration technology.

Charles A. DeMonaco, a DEP attorney, said even if the judge finds a violation the restoration efforts cannot proceed more quickly, particularly in light of the damage done by last year's hurricanes.

"You can't do any better than doing your very best to reduce phosphorous," DeMonaco said.

Kirk Burns, attorney for the water management district, acknowledged there is "uncertainty" whether long-term phosphorous runoff reduction goals will be met, in part because it is unclear what is causing the excess under current limits. He also said Moreno should allow time for more cleanup projects to be completed.

"These take years to put into place," Burns said.

Moreno appeared skeptical, noting that a special master appointed by the court to monitor the restoration effort has found repeated instances where phosphorous levels exceeded the 50 parts per billion now required. The long-term level that goes into effect at the end of 2006 is 10 parts per billion.

Moreno said it appeared state and federal officials were waiting "for a miracle in the fourth quarter, a Hail Mary pass to win the game. We're not going to meet that deadline unless things happen."

The judge gave all sides a chance to flesh out their arguments on paper by May 20. He said he would decide whether the settlement has been violated and what should be done about it by the end of May.

[Last modified May 12, 2005, 00:30:14]

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