Monday, November 30, 2009

Florida commission considers sewage sludge rule changes

The Environmental Regulation Commission on Tuesday will consider changes to regulations dealing with "biosolids." That's the term used to describe the waste from sewage treatment plants, also called sewage sludge.

Spreading biosolids or sewage sludge on land has raised health and safety concerns in some counties. The National Academy of Sciences says the use of biosolids on crops presents a "negligible risk" to consumers when used in accordance with existing federal guidelines and regulations. (See links at end of story)

Sarasota County restricted sludge dumping in 2002 while DeSoto County that year banned the spreading of Class B sludge, which receives less treatment than other biosolids, according to media reports.

The proposed DEP rule changes are designed to improve the management of biosolids, address concerns about nitrogen and phosphorus getting into waterways and support public confidence in the beneficial use of biosolids, according to the department.

DEP began holding hearings in 2002 on rule changes. The draft rule changes require permits for biosolids application sites. Biosolids can only be applied to permitted sites after Jan. 1, 2013.

Changes in site boundaries will require permit modifications as will changes in agricultural operations that affect nutrient loading or application rates.

The ManaSota-88 environmental group in Southwest Florida wanted DEP to follow Sarasota County's lead and require landowners who allowed sludge dumping to disclose that to land-buyers, said Glenn Compton, the environmental group's chairman.

"We thought that would be a good idea to get that on the state level also," he said. "Apparently we fell short on the state level."

Representatives of the Florida Water Environment Association, which includes wastewater utilities, and the Florida Cattlemen's Association could not be reached for comment. Representatives of those groups served on a DEP committee that worked on the draft regulations.

Florida DEP biosolids rule revision site:

U.S. EPA biosolids site including FAQ:

"Florida sludge victims" opposition web site:

(Photo copied from DEP PowerPoint presentation. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Florida planners face legislative scrutiny on growth

State planners say it would take 268 years of population growth to use up the new home lots that already are allowed in Tallahassee and Leon County.

In DeSoto and Jackson counties, it would take even longer: DeSoto would require 328 years of growth and Jackson County would require 996 years.

Despite -- or perhaps because of -- what the Florida Department of Community Affairs says is an over-allocation of residential development in some counties, the department's process for reviewing projects is facing legislative scrutiny.

DCA reviews development projects proposed by cities and counties as amendments to their comprehensive plans. As part of that review, the department wants cities and counties to conduct a "needs analysis" showing that population growth supports changing the land use designation.

But some legislators and landowners say they don't like the needs analysis and its reliance on population estimates. They say it infringes on new development that would create jobs during tough economic times.

"It appears to me we should get rid of the needs analysis or make it tighter so there is more certainty for the developer going through it," Sen. Mike Bennett, chairman of the Senate Committee on Community Affairs, said during a committee hearing earlier this month.

"I don't think the needs test deters people from moving to Florida," he said. "They still want to come down here. So I'm trying to understand -- why we have a needs analysis that would take away economic development and economic incentives?"

A report published last month by the Senate Committee on Community Affairs staff says the needs assessment is a fundamental part of land use planning and a key indicator of urban sprawl. But the committee staff also said it is only one factor to consider along with economic development, urban infill and locating development where it is most efficient to receive local services.

DCA Secretary Tom Pelham suggests that the department is getting a bad rap from its critics. He says projects usually are denied for multiple reasons -- including lack of infrastructure -- which he said are caused by overallocation of development.

"I challenge anyone to find department decisions where need was the only issue raised," Pelham told the committee hearing. "It simply is not the case."

Bennett today told that he's not sure whether his committee's review of the needs analysis will result in legislation. He also said that the proposed Destiny development project in Osceola County could create more than 10,000 jobs, yet it must go through the uncertainty of the needs analysis.

"You have a group of investors willing to put millions and millions and millions of their own money into the project," Bennett said, adding, "A needs analysis does not work in that situation."

In response, Pelham said today the Destiny developers still could build 8,500 homes on more than 40,000 acres -- and they haven't submitted an application to build more. So the department, he said, hasn't denied any project there.

And claims of jobs that could be created at Destiny are simply "wild rumor and speculation," Pelham said, adding, "No hard evidence of any kind has been presented to back that up."

In its report, the Senate Committee on Community Affairs suggested that DCA or the Legislature begin rulemaking to clarify the criteria used in the needs analysis. DCA earlier this month held a hearing to solicit comment on a possible rule but no timetable has been established for adopting one.

Earlier this month, Pelham told Bennett's committee that it shouldn't be hard for a developer to provide data showing that a good project is needed.

The needs analysis, Pelham said, lies at the heart of the planning process. And he noted that Florida has a history of "speculative" development projects that wind up failing -- and government then is called in to bail them out.

"I worked for the private sector for a long time and was honored to represent some of the top developers in this state," Pelham said. "But they are doing their job, which is to take care of their bottom line.

"That's their job -- I don't criticize that at all," he said. "That's why someone has to take the big picture and look out for the public interest. Because it may be the public that winds up holding the bill."

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Florida CFO Sink announces "paperless" initiative

Florida CFO Alex Sink says her department's efforts to reduce the use of paper and printing have saved state taxpayers $1 million since 2007.

Sink, whose elected position places her in charge of the state Department of Financial Services, today announced a legislative proposal to require electronic payments from some vendors instead of processing paper warrants. She called it part of the "Going Green, Saving Green" initiative at her department.

"Today's focus on going paperless will save money (and) improve customer satisfaction," she said. "It will certainly help the environment and it's going to help make state government a little greener."

Sink, a Democrat who is running for governor in the 2010 election, isn't the only state official to announce efforts to reduce waste from printing.

Two Senate committees conducted meetings without paper in October. Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-Palm Beach, has set a goal of having all Senate committees hold paperless meetings by December, though paper copies of meeting materials still will be available to the public. (To see Atwater announcement, click here.)

Under Gov. Charlie Crist, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has promoted waste reduction along with recycling as the state looks for ways to meet a 75-percent statewide recycling goal by 2020. With counties now recycling 28 percent of their waste on average, DEP is preparing recommendations before a Jan. 1 deadline on meeting the 75-percent statewide recycling goal.

During today's announcement, Sink focused more on the financial savings than environmental benefits of reducing printing costs and moving towards electronic financial transactions. With her podium surrounded by stacks of manuals and reports, she said the cost of processing 1.4 million paper checks each year is $4.18 each compared to 77 cents for each electronic transaction.

"The difference in cost is staggering," Sink said.

(Copyright Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Industry reps slam DEP bag ban recommendation

Representatives of stores and packaging industries slammed the Department of Environmental Protection today for a draft report's recommendation to tax and then ban plastic and paper bags in Florida.

DEP posted the draft report Oct. 15, then withdrew it two days later after criticism. Still, industry representatives said today they disagreed with the recommended tax and ban and said more regulation may not be needed.

"It was a thorough, well-researched piece of work," Fred McCormack of the Florida Dry Cleaners Coalition said, paradoxically adding, "We absolutely don't agree with any of the recommendations."

Environmentalists say plastic bags litter the landscape and harm wildlife that eat them or become entangled in them. Some local governments were considering banning bags until the Legislature in 2008 adopted a bill at the urging of the Florida Retail Federation.

The bill prohibited local governments from banning bags until the Legislature adopts recommendations. DEP is required to issue its recommendations in a report by Feb. 1.

The draft report was intended to prompt public comment. Instead it became a big controversy "on an apparent slow news day" for one newspaper reporter, Mary Jean Yon, director of DEP's Division of Waste Management, told a public meeting audience of about 50.

"We're really just here to listen today," she said.

Representatives of the Florida Retail Federation, the American Chemistry Council, Wal-Mart and the American Paper Bag Council were among those who said that voluntary efforts are guiding the consumer trend toward reusable bags and recycling disposable bags.

Target has begun paying customers 5 cents for each reusable bag they bring into the store. CVS will issue store-credits to customers for bags they reuse, said Samantha Hunter Padgett, of the Florida Retail Federation.

Wal-Mart, which has 273 stores in Florida, has set a goal of recycling or reducing the use of plastic bags by 33 percent at its stores worldwide, said Cindi Marsiglio, the company's senior manager for public affairs and government relations in Tallahassee. The company also is experimenting in three California stores with not offering disposable bags and instead selling reusable bags for 15 cents each.

"There are a lot of exciting things happening," she said. "We just need to let it catch up with what the right product and time and demand on the customer is."

Critics who spoke at the meeting far outnumbered supporters of a bag ban. David Auth of Gainesville said sea turtles and birds die from eating plastic bags and that landscape views also suffer.

"People are irresponsible," he said. "The only way to make them responsible is to get rid of these plastic bags so they won't have them in the first place."

Osceola County Commissioner Brandon Arrington said plastic bags clog the county's stormwater drains and he doesn't think educational programs will halt the problem. He said he would ask his county to take action if the state doesn't act on recommendations.

"I think the state approach is much better for retailers as a whole," he said.

DEP won't post another draft report before the recommendations are sent to the Legislature because there isn't enough time, Yon said. She said her staff also is working on the recommendations due Jan. 1 for increasing the state's recycling goal from 30 percent to 75 percent in 10 years.

(Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

DEP meeting follows withdrawal of retail bags ban report

Following an uproar last month over a draft proposal to ban plastic and paper shopping bags, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday holds another public workshop on whether to regulate bags.

DEP last month withdrew a draft report that recommended taxing bags by up to 25 cents each and then banning them by 2015. The Legislature in 2008 adopted a bill prohibiting local governments from banning retail bags until DEP issues recommendations and they are adopted by the Legislature.

But the recommendations in the draft report last month drew criticism from conservative commentators and newspaper editorials. DEP Secretary Michael Sole said Tuesday that the report was withdrawn because it didn't contain options other than taxing and then banning bags.

"I felt we needed to take a step back and look at other options rather than one solution," Sole told
DEP posted the report on its Web site Oct. 14 and took it down on Oct. 16, according to a department memo to interested media.

By the time it was withdrawn, the draft report had already created a storm of reaction. Panama City News-Herald editorial

The Sierra Club issued an alert on Oct. 28, saying the report was withdrawn "likely because of industry pressure."

Indeed, the Florida Retail Federation issued its own alert about the draft report on Oct. 15, and held a conference call with its members. The next day, Sole called the group to say that the report was being withdrawn, according to a follow-up alert.

The trade group for the state’s second-biggest industry had spent months talking with the state about how to keep the roughly 5 billion throw-away bags Floridians use yearly from ending up in streets, storm drains and beach dunes.

“Gosh, this is not what we expected,” said Rick McAllister, president of the Florida Retail Federation, told the Florida Times-Union.

The Sierra Club is urging its members to tell Gov. Charlie Crist to support the ban. Sierra Club member Dwight Adams of Gainesville said the draft report was thorough and the ban is needed.

"It sounds like politics trumping science," Adams said of the withdrawn report. He is chairman of the Florida Chapter's waste minimization committee.

Sole denied politics was involved in the decision. "I was unfortunately not given a copy of the report before it went out," he said.

Increased plastic-bag recycling and other options, Sole said, should be explored more thoroughly, including "cradle-to-grave" responsiblity in which companies that produce the bags are responsible for using them in new products.

"Plastic bags do have an adverse impact not only on Florida's environment but the global environment," Sole said.

The public meeting Thursday will be held at 1 p.m. at DEP's Bob Martinez Center (formerly Twin Towers building), 2600 Blair Stone Road, room 609. For more information, go to DEP's retail bags report page. (

To watch a video about the harm caused by plastic bags, go to

(An earlier version of this report only stated that the recommendation in the draft report called for banning plastic bags. The story was revised to reflect that paper bags also would be taxed and banned under the recommendation.)

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cabinet approves land-buying bonds, Keys oversight

Bald Point State Park, purchased by the state under the Florida Forever predecessor program.

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet today approved a resolution issuing $250 million in bonds for buying conservation lands, representing the last money approved by the Legislature for the program.

Florida Forever program is the largest land-buying program in the nation, having acquired more than 2 million acres since 1990 with its predecessor program. The programs received $300 million a year from 1990 until this year when the Legislature did not provide additional funding because of a tight budget.

The program has $250 million remaining in bonds authorized by the 2008 Legislature. The bonds were not issued earlier this year because collections from a state documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions lagged behind projections, making it difficult to find a buyer for the bonds.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said the Cabinet vote today was good news for the land-buying program. Although about $73 million remains in the Florida Forever trust fund, the lack of new revenue had caused the state to proceed slowly on purchases, Sole said.

"While we hadn't stopped (buying land), we have approached acquisitions with a little bit more sage eye to make sure we had adequate funds to meet the commitments we have made," he said.

He said a majority of the $250 million is committed already to purchases approved by the Cabinet, water management districts and the Florida Communities Trust program at the Department of Community Affairs.

"We can move forward with closing" on projects, Sole said.

The actual amount of the bond resolution is $285 million, which includes a $35 million-reserve fund to pay debt service in a timely manner if revenue collections fall behind projections, said Ben Watkins, director of the state Division of Bond Finance. He told Cabinet aides last week that selling the bonds still could be difficult this year.

Environmentalists next year must convince some House leaders, who say the state can't afford to buy more land, to restore funding for Florida Forever. The program needs new funding next year to move forward on new purchases, said Andy McLeod, director of government relations with The Nature Conservancy's Florida chapter.

"There are no new projects and no new money this year," McLeod said. "This is the first year in 20 years -- and we hope the one exception, if the Legislature is able to appropriate (money for the program) next year."

In other action today, the Cabinet voted to maintain additional state growth management oversight for the Florida Keys as an "Area of Critical State Concern." The island chain faces challenges stemming from rapid growth in an ecologically sensitive area with a lack of advanced sewage treatment and other infrastructure.

Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham commended Monroe County and the cities of Islamorada and Marathon for progress on wastewater projects but he said additional funding and time are needed to complete the work program.

"A year ago, I was very critical of the lack of progress," Attorney General Bill McCollum told other Cabinet members. "It appears this year we have made some. It may not be substantial, but we have made some."

Also today, McCollum delayed his request for an update from DEP on the proposed federal nutrient standards for Florida waters because Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson was absent from the Cabinet meeting. Bronson was traveling and had asked for the meeting to be rescheduled.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to propose the more specific numeric limits in January. Bronson's department challenged a lawsuit settlement that called for the EPA to set those limits. (To read Monday's story on a federal judge approving the settlement, click here).

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Judge backs enviro groups, EPA settlement

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle today said he will approve a legal settlement that calls for the federal government to set specific water quality standards for nutrients in Florida -- a move that industry groups and Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson have opposed.

Florida now prohibits excessive nitrogen and phosphorus that cause an imbalance of fish and plants in waterways. Environmental groups sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to force it to require specific numeric limits to prevent waterways from continuing to become choked with weeds and algae.

A proposed settlement agreement calls for the EPA to propose numeric limits in January and adopt them by October for lakes and rivers. But agriculture and industry groups along with Bronson and sewage treatment utilities say they expect EPA to impose standards that will be costly to meet because of a lack of time and inadequate science.

Hinkle today said opponents can challenge those new standards once they are approved by EPA. And he seemed to side with environmental groups who argued that the federal agency has taken too long to take such action.

"There certainly is evidence that there is significant degradation (of waterways) and it has gotten worse," Hinkle said.

Terry Cole, an attorney representing eight agriculture and industry groups including Florida Farm Bureau, the Florida Pulp and Paper Association, the Florida Stormwater Association and the Florida Cattlemen's Association, said he didn't know whether his clients will appeal. But several industry groups recently filed their own lawsuits challenging the EPA action in January when it determined that numeric limits were needed.

In court today, Cole also argued that Florida's economy is in worse shape than other states, including neighboring states that won't have such strict standards.

But Hinkle repeatedly suggested that EPA and the state have had more than a decade to act on their own. And he rejected the idea that the federal Clean Water Act allows the EPA not to act -- or that he could throw out the settlement agreement -- because of economic concerns.

"That would be an absolutely lawless decision by a district court judge, I think," Hinkle said.

Opponents last week launched a public-relations offensive, unveiling a Web site at a news conference with former Florida DEP secretaries Virginia Wetherell and Colleen Castille urging Congress to block the agreement. Opponents say EPA is working on a one-size-fits-all criteria that will be difficult to meet and could cause the average montly household sewer bill to more than double.

But Martha Mann, a federal Department of Justice trial attorney representing the U.S. EPA, said it's not clear yet what the agency will propose in January though, she told Hinkle that it won't be one set of criteria that will be applied statewide.

Hinkle said his role was not to decide whether numeric criteria are needed to clean up Florida waterways. He said EPA had made that decision in January and that it would be subject to appeal later.

"Any substantially or procedurally invalid regulation will never take effect because it will not be enacted by the EPA or it will not be upheld by the District Court or Court of Appeals," he said.

After the hearing, David Guest of the Earthjustice law firm said the environmental groups got exactly what they wanted. He represents the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, St. John’s Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club

"Florida waterways are going to hell in a hand basket," he said. "Today is when we start the process for fixing them."

Cole said the groups he represent would prefer that DEP develop numeric criteria. He said he remains concerned that EPA doesn't have the field scientists that Florida has to develop criteria to apply to waterways from Key West to Pensacola -- even if EPA says it won't apply one set of limits statewide.

"We did not think they (EPA officials) were going to come up with just one, but we think it is going to require more than one in North Florida and one in South Florida," he said.

Previous stories:
Nov. 12, 2009: "Two former Florida DEP heads join opposition to EPA standards"
Nov. 4, 2009: "House members vent against EPA water standards"
Oct. 2, 2009: "Bronson sides against EPA agreement on waterways"
Aug. 24, 2009: "EPA, groups settle water dispute; Industry groups threaten challenge"

(Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission).

Friday, November 13, 2009

FDA delays raw oyster ban, Florida reaction mixed

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today backed off a proposal to ban the sale of raw oysters from Gulf states during summer months by 2011.

The federal agency instead says it plans to study the issue and work with industry to develop a new timetable for possibly requiring the treatment of raw oysters. The announcement was met with mixed reviews among seafood industry supporters.

U.S. Rep. Allen Boyd, who introduced legislation aimed at blocking the proposed FDA ban announced last month, hailed the FDA move.

"Today's announcement by the FDA is a tremendous victory for our oyster farmers and great news for North Florida's coastal communities," he said.

But Kevin Begos, coordinator of the Franklin County Oyster & Seafood Industry Task Force, said the announcement did not ensure the future sale of raw oysters from Gulf Coast states in the summer.

"We're glad to see they (FDA officials) stopped their unilateral action," Begos said. "But their press release does not address all of our concerns."

About 15 people die each year in the United States from raw oysters infected with Vibrio vulnificus, which typically is found in warm coastal waters between April and October. Most of the deaths occur among people with weak immune systems caused by health problems like liver or kidney disease, cancer, diabetes, or AIDS.

The FDA proposed requiring that all oysters harvested from April to October receive post-harvest treatment through processes including flash freezing or warm-water pasteurization. Some seafood industry officials say consumers who like raw oysters may not like the treated shellfish or may be unwilling to pay the cost.

Today, the FDA said there is a need to further examine the process for large and small oyster harvesters to gain access to processing facilities. The federal agency said it will conduct an independent study to assess how post-harvest treatment or other controls can be feasibly implemented.

"Based on subsequent conversations with the industry and concerns we have been hearing, we wanted to take a step back and ensure we are doing this in a way that affects the public health and works for the oyster industry," said Meghan Scott, an FDA spokeswoman.

David Barber, owner of Barber's Seafood in Eastpoint, said the FDA jumped the gun with its proposal last month.

"If you know you eat something that makes you sick and you eat it anyway, what can you do about it?" he said.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Two Florida DEP heads join opposition to EPA standards

Virginia Wetherell, left, speaks to reporters while Colleen Castille waits to speak. Both are former Florida DEP secretaries.

Opponents of federal water quality standards for nutrients in Florida waterways raised their level of opposition today, unveiling a Web site and two former state environmental chiefs who are on their side.

Scientists say nutrients from a variety of sources, including farms, sewage treatment plans, industrial mills and stormwater runoff are to blame for weeds and algae that choke some Florida waterways.

To settle a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, the EPA agreed in August to set numeric limits for nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, in rivers, lakes and coastal waters. Previously the state had only a narrative criteria that prohibited levels that cause an "imbalance" of plants and animals.

Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson, along with wastewater utilities and four of the state's five water management districts, already is seeking to intervene in an attempt to block the agreement. They protested the agreement last week in appearances before the House Agricultural and Natural Resources Policy Committee.

Today, business and anti-tax groups along with Colleen Castille and Virginia Wetherell, both former secretaries of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, announced their opposition and the creation of a web site called

"For Colleen and myself, we find it very troubling that the federal government would inflict a particular set of strict -- and what we think are unreachable -- limits on this particular state when they are not looking at them for other states," Wetherell said.

The proposed court agreement, which will be considered for approval Monday by a federal judge, would more than double the monthly sewage treatment bill for the average household from $56 to $118, said Paul Steinbrecher, vice president of the Florida Water Environment Association's Utility Council. He also said utilities would be required to spend $50 billion to meet new federal water quality standards.

There was no immediate reply from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA and the Florida DEP both have said that setting numeric criteria is necessary to restore waterways in the state. EPA has said last month that it had not finalized the proposed criteria so it was unknown what actions would be needed to reduce pollution.

Monica Reimer, an attorney representing the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the St. Johns Riverkeeper and other environmental groups that sued the federal government, said the opposition press conference reflected "hysteria" by the industry groups and that the economic claims were "just ridiculous."

"This entire press conference was about something that doesn't exist -- it's about what the standards are that EPA will propose," said Reimer, with the nonprofit Earthjustice law firm in Tallahassee.

"If they (the standards to be proposed) are in fact arbitrary, they (opponents) can go to federal court and claim that," she said. "If they are right, a federal court will strike them."

A federal judge is scheduled to consider the proposed court agreement on Monday. If approved, the EPA would be required to propose standards in January and adopt them by October 2010.

The groups represented at the news conference today included Florida TaxWatch, Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida Alliance for Concerned Taxpayers and the Florida Chamber of Commerce. They are among 26 businesses and groups that have joined the opposition coalition.

Outside the news conference at the Florida Press Center in Tallahassee, staff of Earthjustice held poster-sized photographs of algae blooms in waterways including a St. Johns River tributary.

Previous stories:
Nov. 4, 2009: "House members vent against EPA water standards"
Oct. 2, 2009: "Bronson sides against EPA agreement on waterways"
Aug. 24, 2009: "EPA, groups settle water dispute; Industry groups threaten challenge"

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Florida PSC wants to consider new conservation goals

Saying that it wants more flexibility, the Florida Public Service Commission today unanimously directed its staff to develop new proposed conservation goals for seven utilities by Dec. 1.

Environmental groups had objected to the PSC staff recommendations, which they said in some cases established weaker goals than the state's largest utilities had proposed. The commission, under fire from some lawmakers and environmentalists in recent weeks for appearing to be too cozy with utilities, voted to ask staff develop new goals including possible use of a new test of proposed conservation programs.

"I want that flexibility as a commissioner," said PSC member Nathan Skop. "I don't want my hands tied in adopting something that is embraced by the utilities."

If new goals are adopted by the PSC on Dec. 1, the utilities will be given 90 days to respond. The utilities whose conservation goals are subject to review under state law are Florida Power & Light Co., Florida Public Utilities Co., Gulf Power Co., JEA, the Orlando Utilities Commission, Progress Energy Florida and Tampa Electric Co.

The Legislature in 2008 amended the Florida Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act (FEECA) to give the PSC broader authority to maximize energy efficiency in Florida. The PSC says it was directed to evaluate the technical potential of conservation measures including demand-side renewable energy systems.

Commissioner Nancy Argenziano said she agreed with Skop that the proposed goals were too low. But she also said the Legislature may have placed too much emphasis in state law on weighing the cost-effectiveness of such conservation programs.

"It may have to be we let the Legislature know, 'You say get to these conservation goals, but you restricted us,' " she said. "When you have cost-effectiveness as the main restriction or driving factor (in conservation) you may never get there."

A consultant to the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which had intervened and opposed the goals recommended by agency staff, applauded the PSC decision to consider new goals.

"They were getting misleading claims from staff that it (conservation) would cost ratepayers more," consultant George Cavros said. "Energy efficiency saves customers money by reducing utilty fuel costs and by diverting new power plant construction."

Florida Power & Light spokesman Mayco Villafana, while stating in an e-mail that his utility has the largest energy efficiency program and lowest bills in the Florida, added: "We look forward to staff's recommendation on this important issue."

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Senate president calls for study of "complicated" drilling issue

Senate President Jeff Atwater today announced that Senate committee staff would conduct a detailed and comprehensive review of the implications of offshore drilling with no timeline for completion.

The House earlier this year approved a bill to allow oil drilling in Florida's Gulf waters as close as three miles to the coast. But the Senate refused to act on the bill, which faced environmental opposition.

With drilling legislation expected to come back in 2010 or earlier in a special session, Atwater, R-Palm Beach, said outlined the issues that must be studied by the Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee.

"Offshore drilling is a complicated issue with significant ramifications for our state," Atwater said. "The citizens of Florida deserve a thoughtful and deliberative conversation free of rancor or hyperbole, and the Senate intends to provide a structure for that conversation within our body."

Other groups including Florida State University and the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida are also conducting their own analyses with possible results prior to the 2010 session, Atwater said. But a Senate news release indicated that the analysis "will be driven by the need for dispassionate review, not timelines or schedules."

Eric Draper, an outspoken drilling opponent and a vice president of Audubon of Florida, said Atwater's announcement was encouraging.

"Finally we've got a legislative leader who is slowing the process down to decide on an evaluation," he said. "When they finish looking at everything they may end up deciding maybe we don't need to consider this legislatively."

Ryan Banfill, a spokesman for Florida Energy Associates, said of Atwater's announcement: "The facts are on our side and we support moving forward with this historic discussion about establishing an energy sector in our economy that will create jobs for Floridians and generate money for the state."

(Audubon's Eric Draper was incorrectly identified as a drilling supporter in an earlier version of this story. regrets the error.)

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Friday, November 6, 2009

Florida officials react to proposed federal oyster ban

Some Florida elected officials this week urged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration not to ban raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico during warmer months.

The FDA proposes banning the sale of raw oysters unless the shellfish are treated to destroy bacteria that are potentially deadly to certain risk groups. But Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson said treatment options are limited and some people don't like the treated oysters.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, were among the congressmen from Gulf Coast states who this week filed legislation to block funding for the federal proposal, which seafood industry officials say threatens their livelihoods.

“The FDA has gone overboard in proposing a ban on raw oysters,” Nelson said. “It’s like trying to kill a gnat with a sledgehammer. Well, there's some of us in the Senate that are going to try to not let this happen."

About 15 people die each year in the United States from raw oysters infected with Vibrio vulnificus, which typically is found in warm coastal waters between April and October. Most of the deaths occur among people with weak immune systems caused by health problems like liver or kidney disease, cancer, diabetes, or AIDS.
"Seldom is the evidence on a food-safety problem and solution so unambiguous," Michael Taylor, a senior adviser at the Food and Drug Administration, told a shellfish conference in Manchester, N.H., according to the Associated Press.

Bronson sent a letter to the FDA on Wednesday asking the agency to withdraw its proposal. And he talked about the proposal this week before House committees at Florida's capitol.

"You can make every law in the world but I don't think you are going to be able to overcome personal responsibility," Bronson told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee on Wednesday. "This is a little bit of an overstep. We're asking them to reconsider their decision on this."

His department has scheduled a series of workshops beginning Nov. 30 on a previous state proposal for more stringent oyster handling requirements that include quicker removal from the water and cooling in processing plants. For more information, click here.

On Tuesday, Bronson told the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee that he thinks the FDA proposal could create black market for those who still want fresh oysters. "There will be more of a chance of getting people sick that way," Bronson said.

Rep. Leonard Bembry, D-Greenville, said he was concerned about oyster beds being closed to harvesting as a result of the ban and possible state budget cuts on oyster testing.

State Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, said the federal proposal would "dissolve the economy" of Franklin County, where 95 percent of Florida's oysters are harvested from Apalachicola Bay.

(Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

House members vent against EPA water standards

Members of a Florida House panel complained today about the potential cost of water quality standards that could be proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in January, agreeing with industry representatives who said businesses and households will be affected.

Scientists say high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus are contributing to algal blooms in springs, rivers and beaches across the state. But the state lacks specific numeric limits for nitrogen and phosphorus and instead only prohibits levels that cause an imbalance among fish and wildlife.

The EPA in August agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by environmental groups by proposing numeric limits in January for some water bodies and adopting them by October. A federal judge will consider approving the settlement agreement at a court hearing on Nov. 16.

But wastewater utilities, agriculture and industry groups say they're concerned that the proposed limits will be too strict. And members of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee overwhelmingly echoed those concerns as industry representatives urged the state to try to block the agreement.

Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers and committee chairwoman, opened the workshop by saying that establishing the specific limits is "reckless during these economic times." She said the workshop was the first of several to be held by the committee on the issue.

Representatives of the Florida Water Environment Association, representing wastewater utilities, told the committee that the federal standards are expected to more than double the average monthly combined water and wastewater bill in Florida from $56 to $118.

Although EPA has not yet proposed any limits, an association representative said the estimate was based on a similar statistical approach taken by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection earlier this year toward setting nutrient limits. The state put its rule-making on hold in August after the environmental groups, including the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and St. Johns Riverkeeper, announced the proposed settlement with EPA.

The utility association today filed its own federal lawsuit challenging EPA's decision earlier this year that the numeric criteria were required. Industry groups said they favored the state's approach toward setting criteria that were suitable for individual waterways rather than any alternative being developed by EPA.

"This idea we are talking about today is the stupidest idea to come down the pike in my 35 years of water management," said Henry Dean, former director of the South Florida and St. Johns River water management districts. He said he now represents several municipalities, which he did not name.

Representatives of the Florida DEP said they have not objected but they stopped short of saying they would not take action.

"I will tell you there is nobody in this room who has interacted with EPA more than I have and I can tell you I have no idea what EPA will propose," said Jerry Brooks, director of Florida DEP's Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration.

But committee members rejected any notion of waiting for EPA to propose its standards as they seemed to accept Dean's suggestion that they adopt a resolution opposing the court agreement.

"This is out of your hands now," Rep. Greg Evers, R-Baker, told Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole. "You continue to do your job ... I think it's up to this committee and the Legislature to take care of the feds at this point in time."

Representatives of the Florida Wildlife Federation and Sierra Club were present but did not speak. Sierra Club regional representative Cris Costello of Sarasota told she disagreed with House members who said Florida was being singled out. She also said there was little mention of the harm to tourist-related businesses when algal blooms spread across Florida waterways.

"We are surrounded by water on three sides," she said. "I think it is being very short-sighted to talk about the cost of preventing pollution and protecting water quality when the cost of not preventing pollution or protecting water quality is mind-boggling."

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Florida land-buying program absorbs more revenue

With the downturn in the state's economy, Florida's conservation land-buying program is sucking up an increasingly larger share of tax revenue from real estate transactions, a state finance official told House members today.

Florida's land-buying program is the largest in the nation, having acquired more than 2 million acres since 1990. But the program received no new money this year for the first time since 1990 in part because of House concerns about its cost.

Division of Bond Finance chief Ben Watkins told a House panel that annual revenue from real estate transactions declined from a peak of $4.1 billion in 2006 to $1 billion projected for fiscal year 2009-10. That's because of the slowdown in real estate transactions and home sales, analysts say.

Yet the annual cost of repaying bonds to buy land increased from $375 million to $449 million during the same period, Watkins told the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee. That debt service for bonds increased from 9 percent of documentary stamp tax revenue in 2006 to 41 percent in 2010.

"The requirement for debt service does not go down regardless of the revenue stream used to fund it," Watkins said. "Because the obligation for debt service is a long-term fixed recurring obligation -- so it continues."

Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach and House committee chairman, said the presentation was "an eye-opener" that he said shows that land-buying supporters frequently underestimate the programs cost. But supporters representing The Nature Conservancy dismissed the presentation as unremarkable because they said similar cost figures were presented by Watkins to the Legislature last year.

Meanwhile, the Division of Bond Finance in early 2010 is expected to sell the remaining $250 million in bonds approved by the Legislature in 2008, Watkins said. The sale of those bonds was delayed earlier this year because documentary stamp collections were lower than projected, which Watkins said discouraged investors from buying the bonds.

Selling the bonds will allow the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to move forward on land purchases that now are stalled, said Andrew McLeod, director of government affairs for The Nature Conservancy's Florida chapter.

"We are hopeful (bonds will be sold) as soon as possible," he said. He said there is an urgency to buy now because landowners are more willing than ever to sell and because land prices are down.

The Florida Forever program helps state agencies buy land for parks, state forests, wildlife management areas and coastal areas. Local parks, working cattle ranches and seafood waterfront projects also receive money through the program.

Supporters have said the Legislature can continue the program for another year simply by appropriating $12 million to $15 million for interest on the $300 million in bonds. But Poppell said Watkins' presentation shows it isn't that simple.

"I have a new saying, 'We'll pay the first $12 (million), you pay back the bond if you think it's so cheap," Poppell said. "It's the bonding that hurts us -- it really costs a lot of money.' "

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson repeated his argument made in Cabinet meetings against additional land purchases. He said they hurt property tax collections by local governments -- even though Florida Forever also supports working ranches, which he advocates.

McLeod said the land-buying and affordable housing programs were considered the main recipients of the documentary stamp tax revenue when Florida Forever's predecessor program was created in 1990. He said other money later was siphoned away for transportation and general government operations as documentary stamp revenues soared during the real estate boom.

The stabilization and expected increase in revenue helps the program as supporters seek new funding for it in 2010, McLeod said. There is broad public support for borrowing money to buy land for protection of wildlife and water supplies, he said.

"We will borrow today to buy an asset... that is only available today and is so valuable to the public that it warrants borrowing," he said.

(Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Monday, November 2, 2009

State's Babcock Ranch receives grazing award

Babcock Ranch has received an award for grazing practices at the 73,476-acre state preserve in Collier and Charlotte counties.

The Florida Section of the Society for Range Management announced that Babcock Ranch, which is operated as a private ranch on state land, will receive the first Grazing Lands Stewardship Award, according to the state agriculture officials.

This award, given jointly by the society and the Florida Grazing Lands Coalition, recognizes outstanding contributions to the ranching community in the areas of grazing and wildlife management.

"It is especially gratifying that Babcock Ranch has been chosen for this award," Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson said in a statement. "The accomplishment of producing an outstanding ranching operation while providing enhanced wildlife habitat for unique South Florida wildlife is an example of outstanding public private partnership."

The governor and Cabinet in 2005 agreed to buy Babcock Ranch for $350 million and to allow it to be operated privately as a cattle ranch with wilderness adventure tours and limited public access.

Supporters said the purchase would enhance the wildlife and aesthetic values of Florida ranch lands with sustainable management goals.

"This ranch is designed to show the look of old cracker cattle operation, while using the best ecological techniques from the 21st century," Bronson said.

To read a copy of the ranch's management plan, approved by state wildlife and forestry officials, click here. To learn more about the Babcock Ranch purchase, click here.

Effects of "Dead Zone" on Gulf shrimping studied

By Florida State University and

A team of researchers from Florida State University, Duke University and the National Marine Fisheries Service will study the environmental and economic impacts of the vast “dead zone” in the northern Gulf of Mexico on shrimping in the region

Dead zones result from low oxygen caused by algal blooms that render waters inhospitable to animal life. That's a potentially catastrophic issue for the Gulf shirmping industry, estimated to be worth about $500 million annually, according to Florida State.

FSU will serve as the lead institution for the collaborative project, which is funded by a four-year, $702,969 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Gulf of Mexico’s increasingly severe dead zone is one of the world’s two or three largest and the biggest one that affects a U.S. fishery. It forms in the late spring and summer off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas, covers between 7,500 and 8,500 square miles -- roughly the size of New Jersey -- and in some years stretches over nearly 12,500 square miles.

“Previous studies of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico have linked it to nutrient-rich runoff that fuels the algal blooms,” marine ecologist Kevin Craig, a faculty member at FSU's Coastal and Marine Laboratory, said in the university's news release.

“Most of the nutrients seem to come from agricultural activities in the Mississippi River watershed, which drains 41 percent of the continental United States and includes major farming states in the Midwest,” Craig said. “Our research team intends to more effectively assess the likely effects of nutrient loading and hypoxia on fisheries, the associated economic costs of habitat degradation for fishermen and others who depend on coastal resources for their livelihoods, and the benefits of environmental policies to reduce nutrient pollution.”

(Photo courtesy of Kevin Craig, FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory)