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Bill foists pesticide tab on public

The measure shields a number of special interests from cleanup costs if they follow the label instructions when applying poisons that pollute.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Agriculture lobbyists have quietly persuaded lawmakers to advance an amendment that would make taxpayers foot the cleanup bill when pesticides poison Florida's ground or water.

The amendment, slipped into a bill approved by a House committee on Tuesday, creates a liability shield for a huge number of special interests. They include sugar, citrus and vegetable growers, to golf course operators, landscapers and pest control companies.

As long as the person who applied the pesticide can prove that they followed the directions on the label, they won't have to pay for testing or cleanup. And the Florida Department of Environmental Protection would no longer be able to sue to recover the state's costs for tests, cleanup, pollution filters and new public water hookups when wells are poisoned.

"We have all kinds of funds and trust funds for that," said Democratic Rep. O.R. Minton, the Fort Pierce cattle rancher and citrus grower who sponsored the amendment.

The sweeping amendment would apply retroactively.

"We were taken by surprise," said DEP lobbyist Mike Joyner.

The "stealth amendment," as environmentalists called it, was tacked onto a general bill dealing with the state Department of Agriculture.

After the vote, Minton said he didn't write the amendment and didn't know who did. Top lobbyists for the sugar, citrus and cattle ranching industries denied involvement. Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association lobbyist Butch Calhoun acknowledged that the amendment "may have" come from him. But he refused to elaborate.

Calhoun represents some farmers who might benefit from the change in law. State and federal officials are doing a massive investigation of pesticide contamination around Central Florida's Lake Apopka, where more than 1,000 white pelicans and other wading birds have died from pesticide poisoning. In December, the St. Johns River Water Management District ordered one Lake Apopka farming company, Lust Farms Inc., to clean up contaminated soil along the lakeshore.

The amendment could have ramifications all over the state. Floridians have sprayed poisons to kill off pests on golf courses, groves, parks and farm fields from Pensacola to Miami. Old arsenic-filled "cattle dipping vats," used years ago to kill off cattle ticks, are scattered throughout the state.

"I think it's a fairness issue," Minton said. "You can't punish someone for doing something that was recommended to do" by the manufacturer.

But attorney Suzi Ruhl, who runs an environmental public-interest law firm called the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation, said the pesticide cleanup waiver would tie government's hands.

"It seems like common sense that they shouldn't be held liable when they complied with the law," Ruhl said. "But remember -- we're not talking about liability damages. We're talking about cleanup. All the Superfund sites today were created, by and large, by companies that were following the law. Here it is, 30 years later, and we're trying to do the same thing with pesticide applications."

In practice, DEP has rarely collected costs from people who have sprayed pesticides that later contaminated soil or groundwater. Instead, the state has gone after pesticide manufacturers.

The biggest case happened in the late 1980s, when the DEP found that hundreds of wells were contaminated by a pesticide called EDB. Even though farmers followed the manufacturer's directions when they spread the pesticide on row crops in the Panhandle and citrus groves in Central Florida, EDB seeped into the aquifer.

In 1991, the state won a $1.3-million settlement from Great Lakes Chemical Corp., which manufactured EDB, said Larry Morgan, the DEP attorney who handled the case.

Charles Lee, lobbyist for the Florida Audubon Society, said he believes the "stealth amendment" may also protect farmers in the Everglades as the state embarks on a massive environmental restoration there.

Lee said environmentalists will be watching to see whether a similar amendment pops up in the Senate.

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