Longform

Enviro-hassles

Page 6 of 7

He did indeed move on -- to more of the same, this time on the pristine wooded shores of the Ichetucknee River in Suwannee County. The river bubbles up from spring headwaters, and its shores are flanked by state park land, a few private homes, and roughly 900 acres of land owned by Suwannee American Cement Co. In 1999, the company applied for a DEP permit to build a tire- and coal-burning cement plant on the property, from which it would mine minerals for processing. Fearing for the river, citizen and conservation groups rose up against the plan. During a highly publicized photo-op in June 2000, Bush and Struhs paddled a canoe down the bucolic stream and afterward proclaimed that the company would not get its permit. Behind closed doors, however, Struhs brokered a deal with the company, and the permit was issued. The smoke-billowing plant now stands beside the waterway.

In issuing both these permits, the DEP used a little sleight of hand that followed the letter of the law but not its intent, Young says. "They issued a notice of intent to deny the permit," she says. "So publicly, in the newspaper, it said they'd deny the permit. Then they turned around and secretly issued it. Then when you ask them how they can do this without publishing a notice, they say, 'We published a notice, an intent to deny. That was your chance to challenge it.' Well, you have to show how you're adversely affected by something to challenge a permit. If they're going to deny it, you're not adversely affected by it!" She laughs bitterly at the notion. "I can't count all the times I've seen the DEP, under the Bush administration, just flat out deny citizens the right to be involved, not give public notices. They have a very consistent attitude about public participation and trying to keep the public out of the process as much as possible."

Developers are already embracing the new game. For example, the St. Joe Development Co., which has built huge tracts of housing in the Panhandle, is pushing for the construction of an airport in Bay County, north of Panama City. The airport, which would lie smack in the middle of marshland, is needed, company officials say, to attract homebuyers for its future development on the county's pastoral westside waterfront.

"Already, even before the applications go in and it gets to the point where they issue permits," Young says, "the company has this whole laundry list they maintain called the 'net environmental benefits' of this new airport that's going to pave over 2,000 acres of wetlands and destroy an entire estuary."

The administration has worked to silence public input by denying that individuals or groups have a valid standing in opposing permit requests by companies. In one case, Young, through an administrative court process, challenged a permit by a paper mill owned by Georgia Pacific in Palatka. The mill owners sought a permit to build a pipeline to dump its wastewater directly into the St. Johns River instead of into Rice Creek, a small tributary that led to the larger river. The DEP -- the very agency charged with environmental protection -- joined the company in a motion claiming that Young had no standing because she had no personal ties to the St. Johns River.

Young thinks that as the environmental community in Florida has become more adept in court, special interests are learning new defensive maneuvers. "The public would be outraged if they came out and said, 'OK, we're going to change the law so we don't have to protect water.' This is their way of getting around it."




Brumberg says that as ombudsman, he sought balance. "There are people who would like to pave over the whole state, on one hand, and those who'd like people to leave the state and have no more anything," he says. "In any society, you have to have someone on the extreme ends on both sides because the extreme positions tend to make a better balance."

So where does Jeb Bush stand on that spectrum?

"Yes, the governor is a developer, but I think it's too easy to classify him as an extremist," Brumberg answers. "That's not fair. I know the governor has an environmentally sensitive side to him. I've seen it. There's a balanced approach there, in my opinion. Maybe my approach is a little more green and maybe his is a little more toward the economics."



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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson