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Judge faults state for failing to clean up Everglades

A federal judge says Florida has continued to allow phosphorous-laden water to flow into a wildlife refuge.

By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published June 3, 2005


Florida has repeatedly violated an agreement to clean up pollution in the Everglades, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

Now he has to figure out what to do about it.

Every year since 1999, the state has allowed phosphorous-laden water to flow into a national wildlife refuge at the northeastern edge of the Everglades, despite pledges to fix the problem, U.S. District Judge Frederico Moreno found.

Attorneys for the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians and environmental groups hailed Moreno's ruling as vindication of their longstanding complaints about the sluggish pace of the cleanup.

"This is a huge victory for the Everglades and a terrible setback" for the government, said David Guest of the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.

State officials were surprised by the judge's ruling and defended their efforts to clean up the pollution.

"We don't feel we're in violation," said South Florida Water Management District general counsel Sheryl Wood. The $1-billion the state is spending is "unparallelled," she said.

Colleen Castille, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, released a statement that did not directly address the violations. Instead she pointed out that the state has built 36,000 acres of treatment areas to clean the water, reducing overall phosphorous levels from 170 parts per billion a decade ago to 12 parts per billion now. The goal is 10 parts per billion.

"No other government in the world has invested as much time or money in improving the quality of one single water body or natural system," she said.

"We will not rest until the job is done."

Phosphorous-rich runoff from over-fertilized farms and suburban lawns carry ripples of pollution into the Everglades, wreaking havoc on its delicate ecology. It kills vital algae, wipes out native sawgrass and stimulates the growth of dense stands of cattails, altering the habitat for wildlife.

The U.S. Justice Department sued the state in 1988, charging that it had illegally allowed phosphorous pollution to ruin federal property. Under the terms of a landmark 1992 court settlement, the state agreed to launch the cleanup.

The agreement contains a set of deadlines to build filtering marshes and reduce the pollution. The final cleanup deadline: December 2006.

The Miccosukees, who live in the Everglades, and a coalition of environmental groups, have been contending for years that the settlement's pollution limits have been exceeded. But state officials have repeatedly denied they were violating the agreement.

Two years ago, though, the Legislature passed a controversial law extending the cleanup deadline for another decade. U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler, who was overseeing the settlement, sharply criticized lawmakers and Gov. Jeb Bush for approving the extension.

The sugar industry then got Hoeveler kicked off the case for alleged bias. Moreno replaced him.

Despite the new law, which affects the rest of the Everglades, the federal court settlement remains in force for pollution flowing into Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. And water samples show too much pollution, Moreno found.

"The message here is that the denial that something's wrong, which has been the position of the water management district over recent years, is no longer going to cut it with the court," said Charles Lee, senior vice president of Audubon of Florida.

Moreno, who at a hearing last month expressed skepticism that the state will meet the final deadline in 18 months, ordered a special master to hold a hearing within 90 days to make recommendations for what to do. That could include requiring the state to build larger filtering areas, said Dexter Lehtinen, who represents the Miccosukees.

The tribe is not seeking to fine the government, Lehtinen said.

"Money doesn't mean anything if you don't clean up the Everglades," he said.