The Great Slurp

Gov. Bush's Scripps gamble is sucking up state funds -- and the Everglades with it

Complaints over the unseemly haste of the review process have come from unlikely sources. In April, Michael Busha, executive director of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council, sent a letter to an official under the governor to question the deadline. "Unfortunately," Busha wrote, "the plan seems to be suffering partly from the speed at which we all have been asked to work under the expedited permitting process." Asked about his letter, Busha hesitated from saying the Mecca and Vavrus sites were not a good choice. "I think everybody questioned the location they chose," Busha says. "But that decision wasn't the choice of the Regional Planning Council. The governor chose it; Scripps chose it. The decision has been made, and really there is no reason to debate it further."

Conservationists fear this hurried process won't allow regulators time to consider the impact to the environment and charge that the plans will be approved only because they are attached to a state project that's supposed to generate jobs. The environmentalists have so far been drowned out among the hordes supporting the possible economic benefits of Scripps. Still, a half-dozen or so conservationists frequent the near-weekly hearings on Scripps, often the only people from the public to comment on the plans.

Over the past decade, Palm Beach County has made dozens of attempts to buy the Vavrus property to preserve it. Using money approved by two voter referendums, the county made several written offers to Vavrus that were repeatedly shot down. Rosa Durando, the environmental chair of the Audubon Society's Everglades branch, says the county's decision to now back developing the land makes no sense. "With the blessings of the government, they have raised swamp-busting to a new art, and I think it stinks," Durando says. "The public never had a choice in this."

Fred Harper
Scripps research assistant Cheryl Demczyk (left) and scientist Chris Baker work in the temporary lab in Boca Raton. At right, a wild orchid grows near the land where the Scripps city will be built.
Colby Katz
Scripps research assistant Cheryl Demczyk (left) and scientist Chris Baker work in the temporary lab in Boca Raton. At right, a wild orchid grows near the land where the Scripps city will be built.

Friends of the Everglades, the grassroots organization that has done perhaps more than any other to preserve wetlands, decided against a lawsuit to stop Scripps, board member Juanita Greene says. "It would be a fine thing to have Scripps here, but only if it were not in such pristine wetlands," Greene says. "They could not have picked a worse spot if they tried, but unfortunately, we just don't have the resources to file a lawsuit for every bad plan that comes our way."

Reed, the former assistant secretary of the Interior under presidents Nixon and Ford and Florida's first head of the Department of Environmental Protection, says a lawsuit against Scripps could tie the project up for years, if not decades. "I suggest to you that the wetlands issues alone could result in a legal challenge that would put the future of this project in jeopardy for years to come." A 70-year-old retiree in Hobe Sound, Reed has long been a voice of reason among hot-headed conservationists. He's a Republican, and his family donated the nearly priceless waterfront land that became the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. Reed believes a legal fight over Scripps is destined, although just which organization will file it isn't clear, and Reed believes the environmental issues will eventually sink a Scripps plan that could be beneficial elsewhere.

Davis also drove to the Vavrus ranchland and the orange grove on the Mecca property and continued out to the western lands of Corbett. There, she found wild orchids, great blue herons, and a sign warning that the dirt road continued for 20 miles to nowhere. "People say we environmentalists bitch about every project and that there's got to be something that's not sacred. But when you stand here on this property, you can see this is land that should be saved."

Back in the mid-1970s, pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG, a partner of Scripps, thought it had developed a drug that would finally fight Parkinson's disease. The Swiss company began testing the drug, called Parlodel, on humans. While it didn't get far in helping people with Parkinson's, it did have an odd side effect that would prove valuable. Women who had recently given birth who took Parlodel found that their mammary glands would go immediately dry. Novartis quickly reshaped its target audience for Parlodel and in 1980 began selling it as an anti-lactation drug for women who chose not to breast-feed.

Then came the lawsuits. Dozens of women who took the drug had strokes and seizures not long after. Just how many suffered or died will never be known since Novartis settled many of the suits before they went to trial. In 1994, the company took Parlodel off the shelves after pressure from the government to do so. But the lawsuits are still coming. In February, a Kentucky jury awarded $18 million to the estate of a woman who took Parlodel and died from a stroke just days after giving birth.

Novartis' lawsuit nightmare isn't uncommon in the high-stakes world of pharmaceuticals. Lawsuits against drug manufacturers are increasing, many of them claiming the companies failed to adequately test drugs before bringing them to market.

Scripps, on the other hand, can benefit from Florida law meant to protect government agencies from lawsuits because it has partnered with the state.

Lerner, the Scripps president, revealed this legal benefit during a question-and- answer period after his speech before a Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce luncheon. After Lerner's comments, Scripps officials, typically extremely accessible to the media, declined to discuss it further. Over several weeks, calls from New Times seeking comment on this issue were not returned by Keith McKeown, Scripps' spokesman, or Douglas Bingham, vice president and general counsel.

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