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    EPA isn't helping, Bush tells president

    Jeb Bush asks his brother for federal support for Florida's plan to store untreated water in the underground aquifer.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001


    Three days after federal regulators raised concerns about a state plan to pump untreated and polluted water into Florida's underground aquifer, Gov. Jeb Bush complained to his brother that the agency was hampering innovation.

    The controversial aquifer-storage plan, which was approved by the state Senate this week and is up for a final vote in the House next week, is featured in a nine-page letter the governor sent his brother outlining a series of state initiatives that he said were being stymied by federal agencies.

    In his letter the governor labeled federal clean-water rules "nonsensical," and encouraged the new president to "change the culture" at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to "abandon conventional processes" and allow states to try new solutions.

    Aquifer storage and recovery, or ASR for short, is a key element in the $8-billion Everglades restoration plan. It calls for punching more than 300 holes in the limestone near Lake Okeechobee.

    During the rainy season, more than 1-billion gallons of fresh water a day would be injected into the ASR wells. The water would sit 1,000 feet underground in a bubble in the brackish Floridan Aquifer. At least 30 percent would dribble away but, during dry weather, the rest could be pumped back up to feed the Everglades and thirsty cities.

    The water to be pumped underground comes from polluted Lake Okeechobee and the surrounding sugar, dairy, and vegetable farms. Federal standards require that any water injected into ASR wells be treated first, to kill contaminants that might pollute the aquifer. The treatment requirement adds an estimated $400-million to the Everglades plan.

    To save money, the governor wants to relax the rules and allow the water to exceed standards for bacteria and coliform, which comes from human and animal waste. The change would apply to the whole state, opening the way for hundreds of new ASR wells that would otherwise violate drinking water standards.

    Proponents contend the bacteria will die off naturally in the ASR wells, although they cannot explain why. Geologists say the theory is unproven. Harold Wanless, chairman of the University of Miami's geological sciences department, told the New York Times that the proposal is "idiocy."

    Even some staunch Bush supporters like state Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, are uneasy about pumping polluted water into the aquifer.

    "You don't have to be a scientist to know that you don't put, excuse me, crap into the potable water supply," she said.

    On Jan. 19, the EPA's regional director, John Henry Hankinson, wrote to state officials to raise similar concerns. Instead of plunging ahead, he said, the state should try testing its theory and proceed "once the technology is proven."

    Three days later the governor was complaining to his brother about the agency, contending that "sweeping cultural change is necessary within EPA if a state-led environmental renaissance is going to be allowed to proceed."

    In the Jan. 22 letter, addressed to "Dear George," the governor saluted the newly inaugurated president as someone who could free the states from being "the docile wards of a bureaucracy far from home."

    Last week, the governor said his brother "took a liking to the letter and sent it out to every secretary . . . It's become kind of a blueprint for how he would like to see departments interact with states."

    In the letter, the governor outlined programs in which he said federal agencies were hampering the state and specifically mentioned the ASR problem.

    "EPA's insistence that naturally occurring surface water should be treated to drinking-water standards prior to being placed underground, only to be retreated again to the same standard when pumped out of the ground for use, is nonsensical," Bush wrote.

    Instead, he suggested the president "encourage your new managers at EPA" to meet with state officials to determine how to "assist the states in executing their agendas."

    Hankinson, who is no longer with the EPA, could not be reached for comment Friday. EPA spokesman Carl Terry said the agency has no formal position on the ASR bill, but is "committed to working with the state of Florida in development of an ASR project protective of human health and the environment."

    The EPA has yet to rule on whether the state's plan meets the requirements of federal law, Terry said. So far, the state has not formally requested the EPA to consider the change.

    - Staff writers Tim Nickens and Bridget Hall Grumet contributed to this story.

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