EPA removes expert who criticized Everglades program

Documents show he was taken off the project after expressing concerns about a proposal to funnel pollution into Biscayne National Park.

Published November 19, 2007

In 1999, when federal officials unveiled a plan for restoring the Everglades, Richard Harvey was there representing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For the next seven years, whenever there was a meeting to work out the details of repairing the River of Grass - and there were plenty - Harvey served as the EPA's expert.

He's been there "pretty much from the beginning," said Jim Beever of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council. "He's one of the most knowledgeable guys they've got," agreed Gene Duncan, director of water resources for the Miccosukkee Tribe.

But not anymore. Harvey's bosses have decided he will no longer work on the $10-billion Everglades restoration program.

Documents obtained by the St. Petersburg Times show Harvey was removed earlier this year after he expressed concerns about a proposal to solve Lake Okeechobee's pollution woes by funneling the pollution into Biscayne National Park.

Harvey, who is still head of the EPA's South Florida office, referred all questions to the EPA regional office in Atlanta. In response to a request for an interview with EPA regional administrator Jimmy Palmer, a spokeswoman said he could not comment on "a personnel matter."

The Everglades project approved by Congress establishes a broad outline for the work, leaving to experts like Harvey the job of filling in the details on how the complex work would be carried out. But over the years, four other experts have been taken off the project or even fired for speaking up about problems with the restoration project.

"You've got to learn to be judicious in your opinions," explained Duncan of the Miccosukkee Tribe, which lives in the Everglades and has pushed for improving water quality.

Few have been as outspoken as Harvey. In 2002, for instance, he was quoted in a Washington Post series on the Everglades restoration project as saying the plan was looking more like "a massive urban and agricultural water-supply project," instead of a rescue for the River of Grass.

One of the biggest problems that has cropped up is that the plan has failed to deal with continuing pollution problems in Lake Okeechobee. When the lake gets too full, water managers release the excess into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, polluting them as well.

In 2005 the releases of polluted lake water spawned massive algae blooms in the two rivers that killed fish, drove away tourists and produced a large public backlash against the river releases.

But allowing the lake water to spill into the Everglades, the way it used to before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dike around the lake, won't work either because the Everglades can tolerate only miniscule amounts of phosphorus, one of the main pollutants in the lake.

In 2005, during a discussion of building reservoirs around the lake to hold the excess polluted water, Harvey warned in a letter that they could become incubators for more toxic algae blooms. State officials complained that his comments were "irresponsible and unfounded."

Then, last fall, corps officials proposed building a $1-billion underground pipeline system to carry off the excess lake water. They called it "a bold step toward restoration."

But at an Oct. 10, 2006, meeting, Harvey pointed out the pipeline would be dumping pollution into canals flowing into Biscayne National Park, hardly a solution that protects the environment.

"Once again we're routing dirty water," Harvey said. "We are extremely concerned because the track record when the district and the corps move dirty water around is some resource gets trashed."

Harvey was participating in the meeting via conference call, according to EPA records, and did not know a Palm Beach Post reporter was covering the meeting. When his comments appeared in print, Harvey had to explain himself to his boss in Atlanta, Jim Giattina.

In an e-mail to Giattina, Harvey said no one was talking about the issue of polluted water being funneled into the national park until he brought it up.

"I NEVER question the importance of the issues you raise or your technical competency. What concerns me is HOW you raise the issues," Giattina replied.

Then, in January, Giattina wrote Harvey a long memo that said he had discussed Harvey's comments about the pipeline with "several representatives" of other agencies, without naming them. As a result, he wrote, Harvey would no longer be the EPA's representative on the Everglades project.

"I believe that your remarks compromise our ability to have an effective voice on critically important matters with regard to Everglades restoration," Giattina wrote. "I believe your remarks are an indicator that you have lost your ability to be objective regarding the motivation of other key parties involved in Everglades's (sic) restoration."

Nevertheless, Giattina wrote, "because this is my first expression of concern in writing to you regarding this matter, I am still rating your performance ... as 'fully successful.'"

Corps officials could not be reached for comment on whether they had complained about him or aware of his removal. Giattina notified at least one other federal agency of the change, the Government Accountability Office, according to documents obtained by the Times.

"No one's ever going to say it, but I think it was to make sure he and the South Florida Water Management District didn't come into contact anymore," said Wayne Daltry, Lee County's "Smart Growth" coordinator, who pointed out that the corps subsequently dropped the pipeline plan.

But state officials say they had nothing to do with what happened to Harvey.

"He's a good guy," said Mike Collins, a longtime water district board member. "They didn't consult with me on that one."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.


Other officials removed from the Everglades project for making critical comments:

- In 1998, the South Florida Water Management District - the main state agency working on the project - fired senior environmental scientist Herbert Grimshaw after he accused his bosses of burying his research on phosphorous levels in the Everglades. A year later, as a result of a lawsuit, he was rehired and his research finally published.

- In 1999, the water district fired research scientist Nick Aumen after he complained at a forum on improving communications that the bureaucrats and politicians directing the project were too busy with private meetings or "walking around with cell phones" to listen to scientists.

- In 2000, water district Deputy Executive Director Bill Malone resigned under pressure after he was accused of questioning the expense of a multimillion-dollar deal that top officials of Gov. Jeb Bush's administration had worked out to buy farmland for the restoration project.

- In 2003 the water district's chief environmental scientist, Lou Toth, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that the push to restore the Everglades was taking away resources from his unfinished work of restoring the Kissimmee River. His comments led to a demotion and a pay cut. Like Harvey, Toth criticized the Everglades project to the Washington Post, saying in 2002 that the restoration plans relied too much on engineering solutions instead of freeing nature from human constraints.