Around 10 a.m., his day took a decidedly ominous turn when his supervisor, Jose Calas, and the district office's acting director, John Moulton, stopped by his office. The solemn pair beckoned him to a meeting room for a conference call. Zebuth had a hunch what it was all about: A headline in that morning's Palm Beach Post suggested the DEP had second thoughts about the Scripps Research Institute biotech project on 1,900 acres in northwest Palm Beach County.
"I never mentioned Scripps at all when I spoke," Zebuth says of the meeting on which the Post story was based. "The only thing I talked about was the need for water storage in the basin."
Only when the conference call commenced did Zebuth realize just how much his concerns had rankled the brass. On the Tallahassee end of the line were David Struhs, who was Gov. Jeb Bush's handpicked DEP secretary, and Ernie Barnett, director of ecosystem restoration in the state.
Struhs informed Zebuth that the Scripps project -- fueled by a $642 million taxpayer giveaway -- was of tremendous economic benefit to not just Palm Beach County but all of Florida. The DEP supported it wholeheartedly, the secretary declared.
Zebuth responded that Mecca Farms, the planned site for Scripps, had long been considered key property for restoration of the Loxahatchee River. Then Zebuth, a well-known critic of his own agency, told the überboss that he hadn't even mentioned Scripps. After all, Zebuth added, his supervisor had told him that the department had issued a gag order: Any employee interfering with the project's approval process would be harshly disciplined.
"You didn't put that in writing, did you?" Struhs immediately asked Moulton, referring to the order.
That exchange -- part of Zebuth's last months with the DEP before retiring November 1 -- is a glimpse into how Jeb Bush and his administration have greased the wheels for Scripps development of Mecca Farms. The DEP's surreptitious suppression of opinion has effectively strangled review by the very agency charged with protecting the environment.
Zebuth was certainly in the position to render an opinion of the project. Under Gov. Lawton Chiles in the 1990s, he served as DEP staff member on the Governor's Commission for a Sustainable South Florida, which looked into ways to reduce destruction of the Everglades.
Among Zebuth's assignments was studying the Loxahatchee River, a stint that helped him understand that a large reservoir is needed to help regulate the river's flow. Such storage could be released to keep saltwater from encroaching during the dry season and reduce flow during rainy months to prevent the fauna from flooding out.
"When you looked around the basin, there were few places where you could store water," Zebuth says now. Most land had been set aside as environmentally sensitive or as a wildlife management area. That left Mecca or the nearby Vavrus Ranch, which is also slated for development related to Scripps.
Though the Palm Beach County Commission and the South Florida Water Management District had long acknowledged the need for water storage on Mecca, they changed their minds when the Scripps project arose. In January 2004, the water district board, whose members are appointed by Bush, offered modeling data suggesting that Mecca wasn't needed.
"I reviewed that modeling," Zebuth says. "I thought it was grossly inadequate. They left strategically important information out of the modeling results they released, so you couldn't even really tell how much water was still being released to the estuary."
Zebuth asked the water district to provide him with additional data, but he received nothing. "I fear that without strong FDEP action, we may never see that water or a restored river," he wrote in an e-mail to his supervisor, Calas, on January 22. He copied Barnett in Tallahassee.
Soon after, Zebuth got his first taste of the Bush administration's impatience with criticism. After a meeting of DEP district supervisors in West Palm, Calas approached Zebuth, who was standing in the hallway with a coworker. "He told us they were instructed by Tallahassee to tell us that if anyone in any way interfered with the approval process for Scripps, we would receive the harshest possible disciplinary action," says Zebuth, who interpreted that to mean that an offender would be fired.
"My mouth fell open," he recalls. "I couldn't believe this. Here we are, right in the middle of major planning processes that are critical to one of the biggest... projects that we have, and we get this kind of directive." Another employee, who asked not to be named, confirmed the existence of the directive.
So Zebuth jumped at the chance to mention the directive to Struhs a few weeks later. "He did not act even the slightest bit surprised," Zebuth says of the DEP secretary. "My impression was that he knew all about it and that he just wanted to make certain that they didn't put it in writing." As far as Zebuth knows, it never was. (Zebuth offered the same account under oath in November as part of a lawsuit filed by the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition.)
Once assured that the directive hadn't been committed to paper, Struhs turned to what really concerned him: the compelling need to sell the public on Scripps. He asked Zebuth to write a letter to the editor to the Post stating that it was not the department's position that Scripps was an environmental problem. "I said I could do that because it's obvious that the department supports Scripps," says Zebuth, whose letter was published February 9.
Struhs' posture makes perfect sense to Thom Rumberger, an attorney with the Everglades Foundation, which seeks to preserve the River of Grass. "The Scripps project all originates from the governor's office," he says. "I think you'd have to make the assumption that because the governor is pushing Mecca that he -- or at least somebody close to him -- would make some formal requirement that they knock off talk about the location."
Struhs did not return messages left at his office. He left his $122,000-a-year job in March to become vice president for environmental affairs with International Paper -- one of Florida's major polluters.
Barnett recalls the conference call. "There was never any directive given by the secretary or the executive office of the department that I'm aware of, and I don't remember that coming up in any phone conversation," he says. He confirms that Struhs asked Zebuth to write the letter.
Asked why the DEP would embrace a project that so obviously affects Everglades restoration, Barnett responds, "Restoration is not the way to manage growth in Florida. Restoration is the way to restore and protect our ecosystems.
"There are many, many checks and balances in place to determine the development in Florida. We have growth management acts; we have local governments who do comprehensive plan amendments; and we have zoning and ordinances."
With gag orders coming down from on high, however, all of that is nothing but hollow process. "I guess when the governor wants something," Zebuth laments, "all sorts of things can amazingly happen."