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Pinellas' GOP sports a tincture of green

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By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2001


Was it a mutiny? Or are Pinellas Republicans particularly environmentally conscious?

The so-called dirty water bill won big last week in the state House, with strong statewide support from Republicans -- at least those Republicans outside Pinellas County.

Of the county's seven Republican House members, five voted against the measure, which moves toward allowing stormwater befouled by man and beast to be pumped into the aquifer, the state's main source of drinking water.

The arguments in favor of doing what seems contrary to common sense are mainly economic: It would be a whole lot cheaper to clean up the Everglades if the runoff from polluted Lake Okeechobee and surrounding farms isn't cleaned before pumping it underground. As much as $500-million cheaper. That's not couch cushion change.

"We have to do something," said Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, one of two Pinellas representatives who supported the measure. "If we don't do something, of this magnitude, the Everglades project is not going to work."

The arguments against fooling with the source of drinking water for 90 percent of Floridians center on the science behind the proposal: Critics say there are no guarantees that the water, contaminated with fertilizers and animal dung, will stay where it is pumped and that underground storage will kill the bacteria.

Make a mistake and we could have a giant mess on our hands that would be very expensive to clean up. Keep in mind that 2-million Floridians get their drinking water from private wells -- typically untreated.

Think about the freedom this would give utilities around the state to pump untreated water into the aquifer. And then think about the cat fight that would commence in trying to figure out not only who to blame if things went bad, but who would get the bill.

"That's why the federal Superfund people, they do more work with lawyers than scientists," said Rodney DeHan, a senior research scientist with the Florida Geological Survey. "Who is responsible for the contamination is always of substantial contest."

But you know, don't you, who would get stuck paying for it. You and me.

Pinellas' two Democratic House members joined Republicans in voting against the measure. Several of the Pinellas delegation said they weren't comfortable with the idea.

"I didn't think it was the right thing to do," said state Rep. John Carassas, R-Belleair. "I didn't want Pinellas and Florida to be a testing grounds for this."

Does this signal that the delegation, chock full of new legislators, will be sympathetic to environmental issues?

Locals who have spent careers supporting and defending environmental causes are hopeful.

Peter Clark, director of the environmental advocacy group Tampa BayWatch, said such support would be welcome. The political climate lately has not been friendly to environmental issues. There have been assaults on growth management laws and wetlands protection, Clark said.

"Things are not as bright as they used to be," Clark said. "Right now, we're on the down side of things environmentally."

Some theorize that Pinellas' long and tortured involvement with water problems makes local politicians more of a green bent.

"Republicans from Pinellas tend to be a lot more sensitive to environmental issues," said state Rep. Larry Crow, R-Palm Harbor.

Crow said he was heartened by the position taken by most fellow Pinellas House members. And while the measure seems likely to be approved, the vote by the local contingent may signal some state-level legislative support for future environmental issues.

There are a lot of folks out there who hope so.

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