Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wetherells cleared in biomass plant probe

By Bruce Ritchie

A grand jury in Leon County has cleared city officials, Florida State University President T. K. Wetherell and his wife, Virginia Wetherell, of wrongdoing in the siting of a proposed biomass gas electric plant on FSU property.

Biomass Gas & Electric of Norcross, Ga. received approval from the governor and Cabinet in 2006 to build on 21 acres between Roberts Avenue and Jackson Bluff Road. Virginia Wetherell said last year she was a partner in the company.

The company withdrew its state permit application in January after the proposal drew opposition from the local NAACP chapter, County Commissioner Bill Proctor and some residents of the area. The NAACP and opponent Erwin Jackson asked Gov. Charlie Crist to investigate.

State Attorney Willie Meggs said in January he would present the issue to a grand jury, which on Tuesday found that none of the parties involved violated criminal or ethical laws. Meggs said tonight the grand jury report will conclude the investigation.

The report described how the company selected the site and that T.K. Wetherell withdrew from negotiations when there was an appearance of impropriety. Virginia Wetherell withdrew any financial interest she may have had in BG&E's FSU project, the grand jury said.

Virginia Wetherell, a former secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, tonight issued a statement through BG&E's public relations firm expressing her appreciation for the "thorough" examination of the facts.

“The grand jury’s decision is clear vindication that everyone associated with this project acted legally, ethically and in good faith to try to bring renewable energy to Tallahassee, and in turn, jobs, investments, and scientific research projects," Wetherell said. "It saddens me that the city of Tallahassee and FSU, both of which I cherish, have lost these valuable opportunities because of a campaign of misinformation and vicious personal attacks."

Wakulla Springs protection zone, workshop in the works

By Bruce Ritchie

With Tallahassee seeking federal money to upgrade its sewage treatment plant, Wakulla Springs supporters now are focusing more attention on the threat to groundwater posed by septic tanks.

Wakulla Springs has become choked with weeds and algae in the past decade as nitrogen levels in groundwater increased. Scientists say nitrogen sources include Tallahassee's sewage treatment plants, septic tanks, fertilizer use and dirty stormwater runoff.

The city of Tallahassee and Leon County are considering ordinances establishing a springs protection zone where advanced septic systems will be required if sewage treatment is not available. The City Commission will hold an initial public hearing and vote on its proposal Wednesday night.

Also Wednesday, the city, Wakulla and Leon counties and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection kick off a two-day workshop on reducing pollution and restoring the health of Wakulla Springs.

The workshop will focus on septic tanks in the region, said Dan Pennington, a workshop organizer and planner with the 1000 Friend of Florida environmental group in Tallahassee. The workshop will explore the many options for maintaining septic tanks by companies, agencies or a hybrid of the two.

"Nobody has made any choices or any selections," Pennington said. "What could come out of the workshop is an agreement by local governments to look at these management utilities as an option."

SB 274 by Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, would require the state to establish protection zones around Wakulla Springs along with Ichetucknee Springs in Columbia County and Silver and Rainbow springs in Marion County. Gov. Charlie Crist has expressed support for the bill and for springs protection. (See Dec. 22 story)

Tallahassee in 2006 agreed to spend $160 million to upgrade its two sewage treatment plants to reduce nitrogen in wastewater sprayed on crops at the city's Southeast Farm in southern Leon County.

Wakulla County in 2007 began requiring advanced septic systems countywide for new homes and began requiring them last year to replace failing septic tanks in existing homes. Those "performance-based" systems in Wakulla County cost perhaps $3,000 to $5,000 more than standard septic systems, according to the Florida Department of Health.

Leon County on Feb. 12 held an initial public hearing on establishing a "primary springs protection zone," which covers 153 square miles, or nearly 22 percent of the county, said Brian Wiebler, senior planner in the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department.

The zone primarily covers southeastern Leon County, where a study determined that the aquifer is most vulnerable to contamination. Other vulnerable areas could be included in the future as "secondary" springs protection zones, according to the Planning Department.

City Commissioner Debbie Lightsey said she hopes the county will go back later and look at other areas where septic tanks are failing. But for now, she said, the focus is on protecting Wakulla Springs and establishing regional cooperation.

"I think if we form one of those and put together a plan that benefits us all we may be able to get some funding for it," she said.

In a few areas of the country, wastewater utilities have been established to inspect and maintain advanced septic systems or to even own them while charging customers a monthly fee for their upkeep.

The Wakulla County Commission has discussed septic tank maintenance options but the issued hasn't been fleshed out, Commission Chairman Howard Kessler said.

"We certainly don't want a bunch of improperly functioning performance-based septic systems in place harming our environment," Kessler said. "Some form of oversight is needed, and that's also being looked at."

The workshop, which costs $30 and includes a lunch, will be held Wednesday and Thursday at the Tallahassee Automobile Museum, 6800 Mahan Drive at Interstate 10 and U.S. Highway 90. For more information, go on the Web to www.1000fof.org or call 1000 Friends of Florida at 222-6277.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Crist defends views on "Meet the Press"

By Bruce Ritchie

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist on "Meet the Press" Sunday defended his support of the federal stimulus package. But there was little mention of growth and environmental issues until Crist appeared on the program's "Take Two" segment on the Web.

During "Take Two," Crist said the Republican Party's approach is perhaps too narrow on the stimulus package and other issues.

His comments came after host David Gregory compared Crist to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who like Crist is a Republican governor who supports imposing limits on greenhouse gas emissions to prevent climate change. Crist responded that the Republican Party should have a "big tent" and welcome everyone in.

The GOP was the party of President Theodore Roosevelt "who cared so much about the environment," Crist said.

We should "get back to the roots of the Republican party, which understood it is important to protect our environment (and) be good stewards of the land," Crist said. "Climate change is the current issue as it relates to that."

He also said lack of growth in Florida caused by the housing market collapse "is a concern." (See Dec. 24 news story)

"We still are a growth state," he said. "That's a good thing. It helps our economy significantly."

And he added, "Florida is still sunny and warm."

Friday, February 20, 2009

Crist budget proposal includes Florida Forever

By Bruce Ritchie

The state's conservation land-buying program will be maintained at its present yearly level under the 2009-10 state budget proposed today by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Florida Forever and its predecessor led to the purchase or protection of nearly 2.5 million acres of state forests, parks and wildlife preserves along with urban parks. But with state revenue on the decline, the program was cut sharply last month during the Legislature's special session before the governor restored spending with a veto.

Crist's $66.5-billion proposed budget again includes $300 million for Florida Forever. The governor remphasized that the state's $12.2-billion share of the federal economic stimulus package will help preserve spending for Florida Forever along with spending for energy projects, economic development, education and social services.

"It's a whole new world" because of the stimulus package, Crist said.

"The world has changed as it relates to our budget between the time we had the special session and today," he said. "It's changed to the point of $12.2 billion. That's an enormous shot in the arm, and a shot in the arm again, and a shot in the arm again."

Environmentalists applauded the governor's proposal to maintain the land-buying program. But Crist's support for President Obama's economic stimulus package has put him at odds with some Republicans. Crist appears Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" opposite Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Florida House Speaker Pro Tempore Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater both welcomed the budget proposal. Cretul expressed concerns about using the federal stimulus money in the state budget, according to a Miami Herald story. And he seemed cool to the idea again today in a statement issued from his office as he cited uncertainty about the federal money along with Florida's future revenues.

"Adding federal stimulus money to the Florida economy may help Floridians during these harsh economic times," Cretul said. "However, the stimulus money cannot be seen as the only solution to balancing the state’s budget."

Some Democratic House members said Florida Forever won't survive without the use of federal stimulus dollars. Crist's office said next year's budget would need to be cut by nearly $9 billion from the 2007-08 budget if stimulus dollars aren't used.

"Florida Forever would not be funded, that's for sure," said Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton. "There is no way to get through this process without the federal (economic) recovery dollars even with some revenue enhancement. The hole is just too big."

With so much emphasis in the upcoming legislative session on economic recovery, The Nature Conservancy is preparing a report on the economic benefits of the land-buying program, said Andy McLeod, director of governmental affairs for the group's Florida chapter.

"Studies show when a house faces a park or backs up on a trail it's value is notably increased," McLeod said. "So these are all some of the many ways that the economy of Florida benefits from aggressive, sound land conservation."

Other environmental features in the governor's budget include:

$55.2 million in matching funds for recycling and conservation programs

$75 million for continued restoration of the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers

$223 million from the federal stimulus package for low interest loans and grants for wastewater treatment, stormwater management and water facilities

$11.6 million in federal stimulus dollars for petroleum tank cleanup

$143.6 million in federal stimulus dollars for technology investment and associated "green collar" jobs

$124.5 million in grants and incentives for renewable energy and biofuels

$14.1 million for energy efficiency projects in small cities and counties

$111.4 million for home energy-efficiency grants

See http://www.thepeoplesbudget.state.fl.us for more details

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Senate president says auto emissions not dead despite setback

By Bruce Ritchie

Senate President Jeff Atwater said today he thinks Florida's possible adoption of California's proposed auto emissions standards will remain an issue in the upcoming legislative session despite committee action this week against the measure.

To reduce Florida's contribution of greenhouse gas emissions, Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 directed the Department of Environmental Protection to begin rule-making to adopt California's emission standards. Those standards will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 equivalent to taking 500,000 vehicles off roadways, according to the Florida DEP.

But the Legislature in 2008 adopted a sweeping energy bill that required legislative approval of state auto emission standards. And this week, the Legislature's Joint Administrative Procedures Committee voted 5-0 to adopt a staff report saying that the proposed DEP rule violates Florida law and the state Constitution.

Crist responded this week that the committee may have been "over-thinking" the issue. And asked whether the proposal will be dead on arrival when the legislative session starts March 3, Atwater said he doesn't think so.

"It is still an issue that will make its way on its merits -- or not," Atwater told reporters after a meeting with House Speaker Pro Tempore Larry Cretul.

The Joint Administrative Procedures Committee on Wednesday forwarded its staff report to Atwater and Cretul. There is no bill filed yet to provide for the Legislature's adoption of the DEP's so called "Clean Cars" rule.

The U.S. Environmental Protection last year blocked Florida and 17 other states from adopting the California standard. But President Obama last month directed the EPA to review the California denial.

Automobile dealers have said they're concerned that Florida residents will drive to Georgia and Alabama to buy cars if the rule is adopted. But DEP says it's not clear that automakers will produce a second version of their vehicles to sell in states that don't adopt the California standards.

The Joint Administrative Procedures Committee said the Florida rule delegates authority to California officials, echoing automakers' criticism of the proposal last year in legislative committee hearings. The Joint Administrative Procedures Committee also suggested that the Florida rule is vague or fails to establish adequate standards for agency decisions.

But DEP argued that the Florida Legislature will be responsible for choosing which standard to adopt -- the California or the federal standard -- and that it would continue to do so in the future if California adopts changes.

"I don't think there's much of a problem with it," Crist said Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. "I think we just need to control our emissions and make sure that we're protecting the air."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bill could block Everglades land deal

By Bruce Ritchie
A Senate committee chairman has introduced a bill that could be used to block Florida's purchase of up to 187,000 acres from U.S. Sugar Corp. for Everglades restoration.

SB 1436, by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, would require water management districts to win voter approval before issuing certificates of participation, the same type of bonds being used by the South Florida Water Management District to buy the U.S. Sugar land for $1.34 billion contingent upon financing.

Bennett's Senate Committee on Community Affairs today heard from local elected officials and bankers in the Clewiston area who cited a University of Florida study saying the deal would cost 10,700 jobs statewide. Much of the economic impact would be in Glades County and in Hendry County, where the company's sugar mill and citrus processing plant are located.

Asked by reporters whether the bill was aimed at killing the deal, Bennett said the legislation was aimed at all five water-management districts. He noted that their boards are appointed -- not elected -- and have authority to raise taxes.

"I feel if they have the ability to raise taxes, that is taxation without representation," Bennett said. "I thought we got rid of that premise a couple of hundred years ago."

But Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said the bill seemed intended to delay the U.S. Sugar deal, which was pushed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Carol Ann Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, said the boundaries of the state's five water-management districts are drawn based on water flow, not political or voting precinct lines.

"There is no way to have an election," she said.

And Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida, said he thinks the bill is a a "dishonest" way to stop Everglades restoration. He said the U.S. Sugar land won't be turned over to the state for seven years.

"I think it's grandstanding to try to make a point but he won't be successful with it," Draper said.

The purchase was supported by environmental groups after it was proposed by Crist last summer but it has since run into opposition from some legislators and local officials in the Clewiston area. They're concerned that U.S. Sugar will close its sugar mill and citrus processing refinery, sending the area into an economic tailspin.

Hendry County Commissioner Kevin McCarthy said local residents have submitted ideas for attracting new jobs. But he said the state needs to put in a plan -- with money -- for replacing those 10,000 jobs.

"Those communities are going to disappear, and they're going to disappear slowly and painfully if this deal goes through without a real plan and a funded plan," McCarthy said.

Christopher Shupe, president and CEO of Olde Cypress Community Bank in Clewiston, called the land deal "fiscal suicide" for the state.

"Ten thousand jobs lost because of this deal? Where is there any sanity in this?" Shupe said. "Where is there anything that makes any sense in the whole conundrum?"

Wehle said the district is setting aside 3,000 acres for local economic development and is studying the economic impact of Everglades restoration.

"Everything that we can do under our jurisdiction we are doing," she said. "It's just that we don't do economic planning."

Sole said the Governor's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development is working with area residents to come up with a jobs plan.

"Without question there is a lot of work that needs to be done," Sole said. "You don't just make a plan in seven months. It takes time. It takes a lot of feedback from the community."

Photo of U.S. Sugar Corp. mill in Clewiston courtesy of the South Florida Water Management District.

Text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Gainesville proposes solution for Paynes Prairie pollution

By Bruce Ritchie

Dirty stormwater runoff laden with nutrients and trash for decades has been spilling onto Paynes Prairie State Preserve near Gainesville before flowing underground into the Floridan Aquifer -- the source of the region's drinking water.

Now, a state panel is poised to approve a request to construct a 225-acre wetlands treatment system on state land within the preserve to clean up the flow from Sweetwater Branch. Gainesville and state park officials say the plan also will restore the needed sheet flow of water across more than 1,300 acres of prairie.

"This part of the prairie has been hammered by Sweetwater Branch." said Jim Weimer, Paynes Prairie State Preserve biologist.

But some members of the state Acquisition and Restoration Council today questioned the project and warned Gainesville and park officials to monitor the project and to have plans ready if problems arise.

Nevertheless, the council voted unanimously to recommend approval of the city's request for an easement on state land for the treatment system.

Paynes Prairie, a designated national natural landmark, is a 21,000-acre state preserve that is home to hundreds of migrating sandhill cranes, alligators and reintroduced wild horses and bison. Located along Interstate 75 and U.S. Highway 441, the preserve received more than 220,000 visitors last year.

Paynes Prairie was a cattle ranch during the 1930s when ditches were dug to drain the expansive marsh. As Gainesville grew, stormwater from the city's downtown flowed untreated down Sweetwater Branch.

The creek carried styrofoam cups, plastic chairs, tennis balls and other trash along with nutrients, sediment and treated wastewater from Gainesville's Main Street sewage treatment plant. After dumping the trash and sediment largely away from public view, the dirty water flows through a ditch into Alachua Sink, where it flows underground.

The treatment wetlands, at a cost of $21 million, had to be constructed within the preserve because other upland sites were too hilly or small, said David Richardson, assistant general manager of Gainesville Regional Utilities. In exchange, the city, the St. Johns River Water Management District and Alachua County Forever will donate a 276-acre addition to the preserve along its southern boundary.

Invasive plants at the Sweetwater Branch inflow will be removed and the ditch to Alachua Sink will be filled. That will restore water flow across 1,300 acres of prairie that has remained largely dry because of the drainage ditch, Weimer said.

Council member Vickie Larson warned there should be alternative plans if the system doesn't work.

"I'm not convinced these (treatment wetlands) all work exactly as we engineer them," said Larson, an environmental consultant from Merritt Island. Council member Peter Frederick, a University of Florida wetlands scientist, said rigorous monitoring is needed.

Alice Rankeillor, a city wastewater engineer, said the project is in the early stages and that a monitoring plan can be developed. City and state preserve officials said the treatment system will improve the situation that now exists at Paynes Prairie.

"We're all kind of victims of our past," said Weimer, the preserve biologist. "What we are trying to do is fix our past and make our past work."

Text copyright by Bruce Ritchie
Photos from presentation by Gainesville Regional Utilities

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Powerful chairman criticizes EPA waterways plan

By Bruce Ritchie
The chairman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday criticized a federal plan to set new water quality standards for nutrients in Florida within a year.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Jan. 16 said it would begin setting numeric standards for nutrients -- mainly phosphorus and nitrogen -- within a year unless the state does so first. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is working to propose numeric standards by the end of 2009.

But some industry groups argue that a year may be too soon to develop scientifically-defensible standards. And Rep. JD Alexander, chairman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, echoed those complaints on Tuesday during a General Government Appropriations Committee hearing on DEP's budget.

"It's going to be extremely expensive to local governments and to agriculture and to industry across the state," Alexander said, "and cost jobs in a recessionary period of time and cost dollars that people just can't pay."

Alexander, R-Winter Haven, said that setting numeric standards could be expensive for DEP. Department officials said the federal requirement resulted from a lawsuit and they thought they could do a better job of setting standards than the federal government.

Environmental groups including the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida sued EPA last year to force it to set a numeric standard. The state now has only a narrative standard saying that nutrients should not cause an ecological "imbalance" in waterways, but federal officials say the standard makes protection difficult.

  The groups said the EPA in 1998 determined that the prompt establishment of numeric standards was required nationwide. Portions of the St. Johns, Caloosahatchee, and St. Lucie rivers have been covered with algae because of high nutrient levels and visitors to Wakulla and Ichetucknee springs likewise suffered rashes from toxic algae, according to the groups.

Groups including the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, the Florida Pulp and Paper Association, the Florida Stormwater Association and the South Florida Water Management District have filed motions to intervene against the suit.

But Alexander pointed out to DEP officials that the federal lawsuit had not been decided, yet EPA moved ahead with imposing the standard on Florida but not on other states.

"If we collectively believe this is going to be the right thing to do, we should do it," Alexander said. "But it ought to be done across the board. Every water should be protected on an equal basis -- not selectively targeted."

Mimi Drew, DEP's deputy secretary for regulatory programs, responded, "I agree with you."

There was no immediate response from EPA officials. Florida officials said in January they agreed with EPA's action because they said more effort was needed to clean up waterways in the state.

Monica Reimer, an EarthJustice attorney in Tallahassee, said in an interview that she disagrees with Alexander. She said visitors to Florida won't keep coming if beaches are plagued with red tide and dead fish or if rivers and lakes turn green.

"I am really tired of the current economic crisis being used as an excuse for getting rid of every environmental safeguard passed by Congress or the state of Florida," she said.

Text copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Some communities question "working waterfronts" program

By Bruce Ritchie

Some fishing communities say a new state grant program that is intended to help preserve "working waterfronts" could be excluding some communities that it shouldn't be.

The Stan Mayfield Working Waterfronts Program, created by the Florida Legislature in 2008, provides $7.5 million per year to help maintain commercial fishing. Program officials are recommending the first grants, totaling $6.8 million, go to Brevard County and the cities of Apalachicola and Sebastian.

But representatives of Monroe and Dixie counties and Horseshoe Beach say the scoring system for grant applications could be more fair to coastal communities.

Monroe County shouldn't have lost points that were given for counties with populations under 30,000, said Cynthia A. Henderson, a Tallahassee attorney who represents the South Florida county. Monroe County had a population of 79,589 in 2000, according to the U.S. Census.

"What does that (30,000 population) have to do with commercial working waterfronts?" Henderson said. "It's an irrelevant criterion when you look at trying to preserve working waterfronts."

When it created the program, the Legislature specifically provided additional consideration for municipalities of less than 30,000 people, said Ken Reecy, executive director of the Florida Communities Trust at the Florida Department of Community Affairs. FCT administers the Working Waterfronts Program.

Megan Carter, representing Dixie County and Horseshoe Beach, said some consideration should have been given to projects that require less money or could be purchased with some of the nearly $700,000 that would not be awarded.

Horseshoe Beach requested $394,000 to purchase and reopen a boat ramp and closed seafood processing facility. But the project scored last among 10 projects that were evaluated by the DCA even though it would cost less than half of the other projects on the list.

"When you're in an area like the Big Bend, you get more bang for your buck," she said.

Florida Communities Trust board member Ruth Stanbridge said Carter made a good point. She said historic preservation grant programs set aside money for smaller projects.

"We realize land values are all tanked right now but they will come back," Stanbridge said.

But Reecy said the top three projects could cost less than expected, leaving enough to complete the fourth-ranked project on the list. That was a request for $1.6 million for a commercial seafood building and boat docks in Madeira Beach.

Program officials expect to review the criteria before May, when the next round of grant applications are due. The state rules governing the program could be revised, he said, to address some of the concerns that were raised.

The program is named for Rep. Stan Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, who died last year of cancer after spearheading extension of the Florida Forever state land-buying program.

Mayfield's widow, Debbie, was elected to the Legislature in November to fill the seat left vacant by her husband's death. She said her husband had become concerned about the plight of Florida's fishing families, including her family of shrimpers in Pensacola.

"I'm certainly going to fight for the Stan Mayfield Working Waterfronts funding," she said. "I think it not only preserves land, it preserves jobs for families."