Longform

Enviro-hassles

Page 5 of 7

Here's where the limits of ombudsman power become as obvious as mosquitoes in the Everglades.

As Brumberg worked to get citizen involvement in the water controversy, Bush's staff began separate negotiations with the governors of Alabama and Georgia. "I was not privy to how this went," McLain says. "I think the governor's staff took upon themselves some of the responsibilities [Struhs] had had." The governors announced a memorandum of understanding last May, but because the governor's staff lacked any expertise in water issues, McLain says, its terms were back to "a drought-flow regime."

That proposal has since died, and McLain considers the demise of onerous agreements as a success of sorts. He's heartened that Struhs has, to some degree, accepted ABARK. Ultimately, though, autocratic power makes citizen advocacy groups and well-meaning bureaucrats irrelevant.

Brumberg bluntly describes his role in the affair as a failure, because the public he represented wasn't front and center. "Quite frankly, the way I would have run the process was from bottom up," he says. He would have marshaled the citizens and elected officials along the Apalachicola. "Then I'd put together an army and go to Columbus, Georgia, because they're with us. They're also on the back end of this when Atlanta sucks up all the water. Basically, we'd use a divide-and-conquer method. We'd then go to the outskirts of Atlanta and ask, 'Do you want this to turn into wall-to-wall homes?' This is a political war, and [DEP] is fighting it as a top-to-bottom process."


Brumberg, ever the conciliator, tends to keep his criticisms about state government -- and the DEP in particular -- broad.



"One of the things I learned is that most governmental employees" -- he pauses and puts a velvet glove on the fist -- "I think there's a certain amount of paranoia that comes with being a public employee. I can't really blame them. Most public employees do not make waves. When the policy comes from on high, whether it makes sense or doesn't make sense, it's basically, 'Yes, sir; how high would you like me to jump?'

"The worst thing for public officials is to have their names show up in a newspaper. Most bureaucrats want to be very silent. The minute things start to get rocky, they go into the bunker. Instead of addressing problems in a very public way... It's the gripe I had with the Florida Panther Technical Council. I tried and tried and tried to let the public back into the council, but they don't want the public looking over their shoulders."

Some Florida activists, however, have no qualms about pointing a finger at Jeb Bush and David Struhs for mishandling environmental regulation.

"The playbook is to privatize as many government functions as possible and to turn environmental protection into some kind of market system, which lets polluters off the hook," says Jonathan Ullman of the Florida Sierra Club. "What I've noticed about Struhs is that he allows a lot of corporate interests to determine what environmental protection means."



"The DEP is debilitated," says Susie Caplowe, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club. "It's like the science isn't there any more, because a lot of the people have left or they're forced into being silent."

The Bush administration's pattern is to leave environmental regulation in place -- avoiding the messy political battles -- but quietly thwart its intent.

Linda Young, regional director for the Clean Water Network in Florida, whose mission is to protect and restore the state's surface waters, has gone head to head with the DEP during the Struhs years. "What I saw change under Bush is that there was an immediate and obvious effort to eliminate and reduce public participation in decision-making," she says. "That has been a constant."

Take, for example, a large paper mill in Panama City owned by Stone Container. Located on the city's east side and near a bayou, the sprawling mill converted wood chips into pulp used for cardboard boxes and was a major employer in the Panhandle city. The mill also had a long history of environmental violations and had been operating without a permit for ten years because the DEP wouldn't issue one until the firm brought its effluent down to mandated levels. "As soon as Bush came in, they granted that permit immediately -- and they gave no public notice at all," Young says. She was "shocked and horrified" when she learned of it and shot a letter of protest to Struhs. He wrote back and stated, as Young tells it, "Well, it's unfortunate. It's done now, though, and we won't let it happen again. Let's move on."

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson