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Around the state

Compiled from Times wires

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 12, 2001

Statewide strike force targets polluters

TALLAHASSEE -- A statewide strike force targeting environmental criminals resulted in 149 arrests on charges of dumping more than 47 tons of hazardous waste and other illegal polluting.

Gov. Jeb Bush and Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Struhs said Thursday that "Operation Green Lightning," aimed at big-time polluters and dumpers, was the nation's biggest such effort.

"Environmental crimes are not victimless crimes, and they are now getting the full attention . . . of the law," said Struhs. "Those victims are us."

The effort, started in September, involved 82 local, state and federal law enforcement and regulatory agencies, said DEP Law Enforcement Director Tom Tramel, who headed the operation.

The operation led to the recovery of 95,250 pounds of hazardous waste, including chemicals, asbestos, paint thinner and other wastes, and the arrest of the people believed to have dumped it.

Also arrested were alleged dumpers of 20,000 gallons of industrial wastewater and water pollutants.

The most arrests -- 81- were in Miami-Dade County. Authorities are seeking 22 others, Tramel said.

Escambia trade: school closings for raises?

PENSACOLA -- Escambia County's new school superintendent wants to close as many as 11 of the county's 68 schools to help keep a campaign promise to increase teachers' pay 10 percent.

Jim Paul, a Republican who defeated Democratic incumbent Jim May last year, has asked each school on his proposed closing list to submit written arguments by today on why it should stay open. Paul will make a recommendation to the School Board on Jan. 18.

No layoffs are planned -- the students, teachers and staff from the closed schools would be transferred.

Parents, teachers and administrators at many of the schools have been organizing against Paul's plan.

Paul, a former teacher who ran with backing from Gov. Jeb Bush, made teacher pay a key campaign issue.

Bond rating reduced for 'Bo's Bridge'

GULF BREEZE -- A toll bridge beset by environmental woes now also is running into financial problems that have resulted in a reduction in its bond rating.

Fitch, a New York-based firm, on Tuesday dropped the rating from BBB- to BB on $94-million in bonds sold in 1996 to finance building the Garcon Point Bridge over eastern Pensacola Bay, linking Gulf Breeze to Milton and Interstate 10.

The BB rating indicates a possibility of credit risk.

The 3.5-mile span opened in 1998. Some critics dubbed it "Bo's Bridge" because of the support it received from former Florida House Speaker Bolley "Bo" Johnson. They also assailed it as unneeded and a threat to the environment.

Lower-than-expected traffic counts and toll revenue, which have left the Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority low on cash, led to the reduced bond rating, said Fitch director Cherian George.

Brush fire may have led to crash that killed two

GROVELAND -- Smoke from a brush fire may have led to a car accident that killed two Central Florida high school students Thursday morning.

Lana Biely, 19, was driving a car that rear-ended the back of a truck loaded with rocks on State Road 33 in Lake County, authorities said. Biely and a passenger, whose name was not immediately released, were killed.

Visibility was poor because of a fire in woods next to the road. "When I drove in, you could barely see 5 feet in front of you," Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Kim Miller said.

Tanker truck driver begins term for manslaughter

FORT LAUDERDALE -- The driver of a gasoline tanker truck that flipped, exploded and killed two people has begun serving a 13-year prison sentence.

On Jan. 25, 1999, Richard Ratzell, 47, of Pompano Beach was driving a gasoline-filled tanker at up to 27 mph over the speed limit when he tried to take an exit off Interstate 595 in Davie.

The rig flipped, and two other motorists -- Marie Renaud, 43, and Richard Wlodarczyk, 50 -- were killed in the blazing wreck.

Circuit Judge Barry E. Goldstein on Wednesday refused to let Ratzell withdraw a plea he agreed to a month ago, accepting guilt for two counts of manslaughter.

Online auctioneers vying for chad-making machines

WEST PALM BEACH -- Internet companies are clamoring to be the one to auction off 5,000 Palm Beach County voting machines that held the infamous butterfly ballots on Election Day.

Yahoo! and two other companies have contacted county commissioners about hosting an online auction of the machines as novelty items. The machines soon may be obsolete if Florida lawmakers outlaw punch card voting.

County officials say the money raised from an auction could help pay for a more sophisticated optical scan voting system that could cost upwards of $25-million.

One of the online companies envisions selling the voting machines along with a butterfly ballot and unpunched ballot card for creating "your own chads."

Liquidation.com founder Billy Burke estimated that the county could raise up to $1,200 for each machine.

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