Friday, February 26, 2010

Quote of the week: "Wacko environmental group ... Earthjustice"

"Google this wacko environmental group named Earthjustice and learn a little bit about it. Sorry, I'm speaking honestly."

Rep. Dave Murzin, R-Pensacola, speaking Wednesday at The Florida Chamber of Commerce "Capitol Days" event in the House chambers.

"In response to our detractors: My short answer is that there is nothing wacky at all about wanting clean water or safe drinking water."

David Guest, managing attorney in Tallahassee for the nonprofit Earthjustice law firm.

Murzin was referring to proposed nitrogen and phosphorus limits in waterways offered in response to a federal lawsuit filed by Earthjustice.

The firm filed the lawsuit in July 2008 on behalf of the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, the St. John’s Riverkeeper and the Sierra Club.

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

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Century Commission report tackles oil drilling

From the Daily Wrap by the Florida Tribune, posted at

A state panel's draft report issued today takes on the major questions and concerns about allowing oil drilling off Florida's coastline.

The House last year passed HB 1219 to allow drilling as close as three miles to the coast but the measure wasn't taken up by the Senate. Last fall, Senate President Jeff Atwater asked the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida to assist in studying the drilling issue.

The commission says its 40-page draft report makes no conclusions but instead highlights the risks, rewards and uncertainties of drilling.

Florida, the report said, would weaken its ability to prevent Congress from lifting a ban on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico if the ban within state waters, which extend 10.3 miles from the coast, is lifted.

There are an estimated 236 million barrels of oil and natural gas in state waters off peninsular Florida. A federal estimate of reserves in state waters off the western Panhandle is due later this year.

In federal waters, there are an estimated 7.71 billion barrels of oil and natural gas, the report said.

Drilling in federal waters could eventually generate between $20 million to $40 million annually. But the draft report says an estimate from state waters should wait until after the federal estimate of reserves is issued later this year.

Oil spills are "low-probability" events, the report said, but even small spills can harm marine life, ecosystems and coastal economies.

Oil rigs six miles from shore would be a speck on the horizon and the threat to coastal tourism is uncertain. The U. S. defense secretary, the draft report said, is the person to determine whether drilling threatens military missions in the Gulf.

The public soon will be asked to comment on the report at the Century Commission web site, . The draft report is available now at the meetings web page, which is accessed through the meetings pull-down menu.

The House Select Policy Council on Strategic and Economic Planning meets Monday at 10 a.m. to discuss oil drilling.

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

Rep. Murzin slams Pelham again, backs off

From the Daily Wrap by the Florida Tribune, posted at

Rep. Dave Murzin on Wednesday told a Florida Chamber of Commerce audience that he still wants Florida Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham to leave state government.

Murzin, R-Pensacola, made headlines last year when, during debate on the SB 360 growth management bill, he said he'd like to see Pelham take a job in the private sector. Pelham had come out in opposition to a House version of SB 360 that Murzin was supporting.

Murzin reminded the Florida Chamber of Commerce "Capitol Days" audience of his remarks last year while adding, "I didn't actually call for his resignation."

He continued, "I just said I wanted to find him a job in the private sector. And I still do. If anybody wants to hire a Department of Community Affairs secretary, I think he would do a good job."

Murzin later called the Florida Tribune to say he'd been "overzealous" in his comments and that he has developed a good working relationship with Pelham since last year.

New Harbor Branch purchase approved

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet on Wednesday approved a new purchase agreement for 134.74 acres in St. Lucie County from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution Foundation.

The purchase of land along Indian River Lagoon for $18 million was approved last May. But approval of a new purchase agreement was needed Wednesday because of uncertainty about access to the property across a set of railroad tracks.

The Legislature in 2008 provided a separate appropriation of $18 million that was used to make the purchase.

DEP Secretary Michael Sole told reporters there was no direction from the Legislature to buy the Harbor Branch property with the $18 million.

"Every deal needs to be looked at holistically as to the benefits to Florida," Sole told reporters. "In this case, Harbor Branch was a great one."

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

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Harbor Branch land deal returns to Cabinet

A special land deal involving the Legislature, Florida Atlantic University and the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution Foundation goes back before the governor and Cabinet on Wednesday.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is requesting consideration of a new purchase agreement for 134.74 acres in St. Lucie County along Indian River Lagoon. With approval, the state could proceed with buying the land from the Harbor Branch foundation for $18 million.

The Legislature in 2008 approved a separate appropriation of $18 million for buying land in addition to $105 million provided to DEP for conservation purchases. Although it wasn't designated for any specific purchase, it was recorded in DEP reports as being for the Harbor Branch property.

The separate appropriation "provided an excellent opportunity to proceed with this acquisition," DEP Press Secretary Terri Durdaller said today in an e-mail.

Ken Pruitt, a Republican from Port St. Lucie who was Senate president from 2006 to 2008, supported the purchase in 2008 before the state Acquisition and Restoration Council, which recommended adding a portion of the property to the state purchase list. An additional 296 acres of Harbor Branch property earlier had become part of the Indian River Lagoon Blueway purchase project.

The governor and Cabinet approved the purchase last May at the urging of former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, who was then president of FAU and is now chancellor of the State University System. FAU has been designated to manage the property.

The proposal comes back to the Cabinet because of uncertainty over access across a railroad track.

Pruitt today defended the proposed purchase, saying it already had undergone a "rigorous review" through the ARC council and the governor and Cabinet.

"This is a great project," he said. "It's a great asset for Florida."

The Florida Communities Trust program agreed in 2007 to buy 268 acres of the adjoining Harbor Branch property for $6.3 million. That property will be managed by St. Lucie County.

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

Nelson wades into fisheries debate

In advance of a protest in Washington by recreational and commercial fishermen, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson said today he will file legislation to address red snapper fishing restrictions.

The restrictions are being imposed under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which was amended in 2007 to mandate the use of catch limits to end overfishing.

Some anglers say the restrictions are causing economic harm and are not based on good science. Environmental groups say the restrictions will allow anglers to catch more fish in the near future as species recover.

In a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee members, Nelson said he intends to file legislation to address red snapper restrictions in the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico but he did not offer more details.

"While I strongly support curbs to overfishing and responsible management of our fisheries, I believe we must examine how to achieve that laudable goal without unduly harming coastal communities," he wrote.

In Tallahassee last week, the House General Government Policy Council passed HM 553 asking Congress to consider the economic impact of fishing restrictions.

"In these economic times we are facing, our fishing industry has suffered -- and these changes will make it even worse," said Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna and sponsor of the House memorial.

Jerry Sansom, executive director of Organized Fishermen of Florida, told the council that the problem with Magnuson-Stevens is that it requires overfishing to end within 10 years. He said overfishing for some species is defined as having a significant number of 20- and 30-year-old fish. The group represents commercial fishermen.

"No matter what Congress says you can't make 20-year-old fish in 10 years," Sansom said. "It just can't be done -- even in their wisdom."

In an interview, Libby Fetherston, representing The Ocean Conservancy in St. Petersburg, said that fisheries councils recognize that fishing won't end within 10 years for several of the species. She said reducing overfishing now for red snapper will allow fishermen to take more in the near future.

"There is a light at the end of the tunnel and the tunnel isn't even that long," said Fetherston, the group's southeast fisheries program manager. "You begin to see the benefit of this kind of managment rather quickly."

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

"Hometown Democracy" taps former reporter

Florida Hometown Democracy today announced that Florida writer and political activist Julie Hauserman has been named campaign manager for Amendment 4.

Dubbed the "Hometown Democracy" amendment, the Florida Constitution ballot measure would require voter approval to changes to local comprehensive growth plans.

Supporters say voter approval is needed to wrest growth management from the control of developers. Opponents, including business groups and local governments, say requiring voter approval will cause economic harm and increase the influence of special interests in elections.

Hauserman, a former reporter for The Tallahassee Democrat and St. Petersburg Times, said in a statement issued by Florida Hometown Democracy that the group is a way for ordinary citizens "to win back our votes from the special interests."

Read her essay "How to Save Florida" at

To visit the Amendment 4 opponents' web site, go to

Gulf County residents challenge biomass plant

Artist's rendering of proposed biomass plant, from BG&E web site

A group of more than 20 Gulf County residents have filed a legal challenge against a proposed biomass gas electric plant in Port St. Joe.

Biomass Gas & Electric (BG&E) of Norcross, Ga. has proposed building the Northwest Florida Renewable Energy Center to heat and convert wood chips into gas that would be burned to create electricity.

As of Feb. 16, there were four biomass electric plans applications under review by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in the following counties: Alachua, Gadsden, Manatee and St. Lucie. DEP on Jan. 16 issued a permit for a 55-megawatt woody biomass power plant in Hamilton County.

The Legislature in 2007 adopted HB 7135, which defined biomass as a source of renewable energy. The proposed 47-megawatt power plant in Gulf County would produce enough power for about 47,000 homes.

But Meg Sheehan, a Massachusetts attorney who is working with the Gulf County opponents, said renewable energy does not mean clean energy. Her group is asking Congress to revoke financial incentives for biomass in the economic stimulus bill.

"Unfortunately 10 or 15 years ago biomass energy combustion was put on a level playing field with wind solar and others that don't have carbon emissions with the premise it was carbon-neutral, when it was not," Sheehan said.

In their legal challenge filed with DEP, the Gulf County residents say the company has failed to provide assurances that the plant would not release toxic air pollutants or emissions that would contribute to climate change.

The petition also points out that the site also is near the former Millview neighborhood where contaminated ash from the former paper mill was dumped before homes were built there.

DEP said Monday it was reviewing the hearing request.

A phone call Monday to a Biomass Gas & Electric spokesman was not returned. The company had proposed building the plant on Florida State University land in Tallahassee but moved the project a year ago after neighboring residents filed a legal challenge.

(This story was updated on Feb. 24 to remove incorrect information about the location of the plant site that was contained in the petition filed by the Gulf County residents.)

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

Maddox fires at Putnam over conservation scorecard

Democrat Scott Maddox on Monday used the release of an environmental scorecard of Congressional representatives to fire a shot at the likely Republican nominee, U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, in the agriculture commissioner race.

The League of Conservation Voters rated all members of Congress based on their votes on issues including energy, global warming, environmental health and safety protections, public lands and wildlife conservation and spending for environmental programs.

Putnam voted with the League 14 percent of the time, according to the scorecard ( That was better than six other Florida representatives who scored less than 10 percent, but his record was worse than or equal to 18 other representatives.

Maddox, in a campaign statement, said the Cabinet post ensures "the food we put on our dinner table is suitable for consumption."

Then, firing at Putnam, he said, "You already know about his anti-Florida/anti-jobs position on oil drilling, but you probably didn't know that Putnam sided with corporate polluters and other special interests 86 percent of the time -- worse than eight other Republicans!"

There was no response statement issued by Putnam and a call to his campaign office was not returned. Putnam does not face Republican opposition.

Maddox faces three other challengers -- Thaddeus "Thad" Hamilton, Randy Hatch and O.R. "Rick" Minton Jr. in the Democratic primary.

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

Monday, February 22, 2010

Orlando is home for two rules meetings

Rules meetings and workshops -- they sound boring.

But there are two interesting meetings going on this week that both involve state or federal rules and both are being held at the Wyndham Orlando Resort. They are items on the "Week Ahead" published by The Florida Tribune at

Today, the Florida Department of Community Affairs holds a rule development workshop to consider amending Rule 9J-5.006 dealing with local comprehensive growth plans.

Despite the big downturn in the real estate economy, developers still have come forward with or have been talking about requesting land use changes for huge development projects, according to DCA.

They're doing this despite DCA Secretary Tom Pelham's insistence that many counties already have much more land set aside for development than population estimates suggest is needed. See "Florida Planners face Legislative Scrutiny on Growth," Nov. 24, 2009.

The rule change is being considered to require a stronger link between population estimates and land-use changes. The hearing starts at 1 p.m. For more details go to .

Tuesday at the Wyndham Orlando Resort, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection holds a public meeting on a proposed federal rule establishing nitrogen and phosphorus limits in springs, lakes, streams and rivers in Florida.

The proposed rule last week generated an outcry from ranchers, utilities and conservative "Tea Party" activists during U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hearings in Tallahassee and Orlando.

At the hearing Tuesday, DEP will explain which waterways could fail to meet the proposed new criterion. Already, DEP has said that many of the most pristine waterways in the state could fail to meet the requirements.

The EPA will be taking comments through March 29. For more information on the proposed EPA rule, go to

Friday, February 19, 2010

Possible new state forest proposed in Panhandle

The Nature Conservancy and state forestry officials are asking the state to buy 10,087 acres along Wolfe Creek in Okaloosa County.

The state Acquisition and Restoration Council on Friday voted to move forward on five new proposed purchase areas, including two that would be landowner conservation agreements.

The Wolfe Creek area, owned by International Paper until 2006, is located between Blackwater River State Forest and protected natural areas surrounding Whiting Field Naval Air Station. The project has support from the Santa Rosa County Commission and other groups in the area, said Richard Hilsenbeck, director of conservation programs for The Nature Conservancy's Florida Chapter.

"This area has lots of rare species, lots of good quality natural communities, lots of longleaf pine ecosystems," he said. "It is an area of intense conservation interest by a lot of different groups."

The property includes five miles of Wolfe Creek and four miles of Big Coldwater Creek, a valued paddling trail. Rare plants and wildlife species include white-topped pitcher plants, swallow-tailed kites and the southeastern weasel.

Those other proposed purchases include 811 acres in Okaloosa, Santa Rosa and Walton counties to relocate the Florida National Scenic Trail.

The trail extends more than 1,000 miles from Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida to Fort Pickens near Pensacola Beach in the Gulf Islands National Seashore.

The proposed purchases in the Florida Pandhandle would remove 30 miles of trail detour along highways and relocate them to scenic natural areas, said Dan McKeague, land acquisition director with the Florida Trail Association.

Another proposed land-buy is the 4,414-acre Peaceful Horse Ranch in DeSoto County.

There are two proposals to buy development rights from landowners: One for 1,660 acres along the Suwannee River in Suwannee County and another is for 2,163 along the Peace River in DeSoto County.

Even though the Florida Forever land-buying program received no new money from the Legislature last year, state Acquisition and Restoration Council Chairman Lane Green said considering new projects is part of a logical process.

"You're always putting new projects in the system so when funds become available you're not caught with no projects to move forward," he said.

The proposed projects will receive closer scrutiny from the state before the Council votes in June on whether they should be recommended for the state purchase list. The governor and Cabinet vote on a new purchase list in late summer.

To read about The Nature Conservancy's conservation project in the western Panhandle, click here.

Photo courtesy of Visit Pensacola. Map copyrighted by The Nature Conservancy.

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

Thursday, February 18, 2010

'Directional' drilling, wrecked oil rigs shown to House panel

A House panel on Thursday saw some of the prettier and uglier sides of coastal oil drilling and production.

The House Select Policy Council on Strategic & Economic Planning held another hearing in a series towards developing legislation to allow drilling in Florida waters, which extend 10.3 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.

On Thursday, they saw the industry's prettier side during a presentation on BP's Wytch Farm oil production facility along the southern coast of England.

The company has drilled horizontally from land to extract oil more than six miles away offshore in Poole Bay without creating noise, odor or visible oil, according to a company video clip that was shown to the council.

"Contrary to popular belief this is a high-tech industry," said Larry Thomas, BP's general manager for public and governmental affairs in the United States. "In fact, many of the technologies and deep-water operations are as challenging as what NASA faces in space."

Bud Danenberger, a former U. S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) official, said 113 oil product platforms were destroyed in 2005 during hurricanes Katrina and Rita and 16,000 barrels of oil spilled from platforms and pipelines in federal waters.

"Most of the platforms that failed were based on old design standards," Danenberger said. "Few were based on the latest standards."

An MMS report he included with his presentation said those spill estimates did not include 250,000 barrels spilled onshore and in Louisiana state waters during Hurricane Katrina.

The council meets next on March 1 and will begin discussing policy and legislation, said Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park and council chairman.

To view the more photos and data, download the council's meeting packet by clicking here.

(Images are from council meeting packet. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Contamination notification bill appears stalled

What a difference a year makes -- when it comes to a bill to require that neighbors be notified of groundwater contamination from a pollution site.

HB 207 by Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, Wednesday was temporarily passed by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee after Kriseman acknowledged that members appeared ready to vote it down

He said the bill would require landowners -- rather than the state -- to pay for notifying neighboring property owners and parents of schoolchildren when contamination exists on a site. The bill, he said, is identical to one he offered last year in response to groundwater contamination at the Raytheon electronics manufacturing plant in St. Petersburg.

Contamination was discovered there in 1991 and the state was notified in 1995. But surrounding residents were not told until 2005, when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said contaminated groundwater began to move away from the site.

Kriseman said his bill is the same as one that sailed through three committees last year without a "no" vote. But this year, several House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee members said the bill's requirements expands the role of government and could place a severe financial burden on businesses.

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

Bill allows longer limestone mine permits

A revised bill that would allow the state to grant state permits to limestone mining operations for the life of the mine was approved by the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee.

Permits for the life of a mine now are granted for heavy minerals operations but not limestone mines, according to a bill analysis. Rep. Leonard Bembry, D-Greenville, said the bill is needed to ensure that limestone mine owners can recoup their investments and supply the state with limerock needed for roads and other construction projects.

Tarmac America has proposed digging a mine in southern Levy County in his district, Bembry said.

A strike-all amendment to HB 617 added language stating that the bill would not prevent a local government from issuing permit for a shorter duration.

The bill now goes to the Natural Resources Appropriations Committee.

(CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the bill called for DEP to prepare guidelines for transferring permitting responsibilities to Miami-Dade County. But that language in the original bill was referencing existing law -- F.S. 373.4415 -- and was not contained in the strike-all amendment.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Springs rally at Capitol attracts about 400

Springs rally coordinator Jim Stevenson prepares to introduce Rep. Alan Williams as the Creature from the Black Lagoon looks on.

The upcoming legislative session will be crucial to winning passage of springs legislation, speakers on Tuesday told a crowd of more than 400 at a springs rally outside the state Capitol.

Springs across the state have become choked with weeds and algae as nitrogen in groundwater has increased. But legislation that would either create pilot programs or regulate the release of nitrogen from farms, septic tanks and stormwater have failed during the last five legislative sessions.

Residents came by bus from Gainesville, Ocala and the Dunnellon area for the rally and school children relayed a bottle of Wakulla Springs water 17 miles from the state park to the Capitol. Audience members held signs for springs elsewhere around the state: Sun, Manatee, Hornsby, Troy and Three Sisters, to name a few. A costumed Creature from the Black Lagoon from the 1954 movie filmed at Wakulla Springs State Park was on hand.

Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, is expected to introduce springs legislation again this year after his bill last year failed to receive a vote in the Senate.

Constantine, who will leave the Senate this year because of term limits, told the crowd, "This is the year, as somebody yelled out in the audience, that we have to do something."

"There is no question," he said, "if we don't do it this year we might have gone too far in devastating the natural resource that is our springs. We have to do it in a way that balances both our environment and economic opportunities in Florida. We can do it."

He is chairman of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation.

The crowd cheered as senators and representatives vowed to support springs. But cheers for Rep. Leonard Bembry, D-Greenville, turned to some jeers when he criticized a proposed federal rule that would set limits for nitrogen and phosphorus in Florida waterways.

Environmental groups sued to force the EPA to set limits, with the state and federal agencies saying that specific limits were needed to protect springs and other waterways. But industry and agriculture groups and utilities say the standards are based on flawed science and will be costly to try to meet.

Bembry, whose district includes many of Florida's largest springs along the Suwannee River, said farmers are working to help protect groundwater. But he drew jeers when he said reducing nitrogen and phosphorus could harm commercial fishing -- without explaining how that could happen.

"This is not the time for single-issue politics, nor private agendas, nor is it a time for political partisanship," Bembry said. "We all as Floridians have too much at risk for those kinds of issues. It is time for good, solid, fiscally-responsible solutions that are based on scientific information that has been tested and proven to be valid."

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

Farmers and industry groups blast EPA proposal

Farmer Rod Land of Lafayette County on Tuesday told federal officials at a hearing in Tallahassee that he is a fifth generation farmer and may be the last in his family if proposed a proposed federal water rule is adopted.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is holding hearings in Florida this week on the proposal to establish specific numeric limits on nutrients in springs, lakes and rivers to replace the state's descriptive standard. About 200 people attended a Tuesday morning hearing in Tallahassee at Florida State University.

EPA officials showed photos of massive algal blooms in Lake Apopka, the St. Johns, Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers and in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. (Photo shown is of the Caloosahatchee River at Olga.)

"What we are really interested in, from the water quality management perspective, is to prevent these conditions from happening in waters that are currently healthy," said Jim Keating, of the EPA's Office of Water.

But Land echoed the numerous representatives of utiltiies, industries and agricultural groups who said the standards are not based on sound science and will be difficult or expensive to meet.

Land said he was one of the first farmers along the Suwannee River to adopt agricultural "best management practices" to reduce pollution.

"I stand here this morning with some emotions raging within me and a feeling an utter helplessness," he said. "Because with the implementation of this proposed rule, I have absolutely no control over my destiny."

Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach and chairman of the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee, asked the EPA to provide more leeway and more time for Florida to study the proposal and provide solutions.

"Right now is an absolute bad time to be enforcing something that is going to cost our state any more hard-earned dollars than what we already have," he said. "Economically we're like other states -- we're struggling to have dollars (for programs)."

But David Guest, an attorney with the nonprofit Earthjustice law firm in Tallahassee, said Florida has had 12 years since EPA first directed states to set specific limits for nutrients.

Standing near a photograph of an algal bloom in Orange Lake near Gainesville, Guest said, "Time is passing and waterways like this are being destroyed as we go."

To see photos of Florida's nutrient problem, go to the EarthJustice web site at

For the web site of the opposition campaign, go to

(Caloosahatchee River photo courtesy of Richard Solveson and Earthjustice. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Fasano toughens PSC reform bill

A bill that would restrict lobbying by former Public Service Commission members and staff was revised Tuesday to match tougher recommendations made by the commission.

SB 1034 was introduced by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who said public trust was shaken last fall by news reports of private communications between commissioners and representatives of Florida Power & Light during the utility's rate hike request.

A strike-all amendment adopted by the Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday bans former commissioners and their staffs from lobbying the legislative or executive branches for four years instead of two as originally proposed.

The bill also prohibits commissioners and staff from working for any regulated entity for four years. The ban would be effective for commissioners appointed after July 1 and for PSC staff hired after that date..

The decisions of PSC members have a "huge impact" on water and electricity rates and therefore the state's economy, Fasano said.

"If you can't handle the new law, don't apply for the job," he said.

SB 1034 also was amended to allow fines against utilities who communicate with commissioners on issues that could come before the PSC. Any private communications on issues before the commission must be posted to a web site within 72 hours.

The bill also requires commissioners to follow the same code of conduct that state court judges follow. The bill next goes to the full Senate floor for a vote after the session starts March 2.

An amendment offered by Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs and chair of the Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight, would extend appointments for the public counsel to the PSC from two to four years.

Constantine denied suggestions by other senators that the amendment was related to the service of Public Counsel J. R. Kelly for challenging utilities' rate hike requests last year.

The Joint Committee on Public Counsel Oversight believed the position "deserved a four-year term, not a two-year term, so they (public counsels in the future) were not coming back every single time to get renominated," Constantine said.

Fasano agreed to a suggestion by Sen. J. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami and Rules Committee chairman, to work on the bill to make it clear that it is legal for the public to ask PSC members procedural questions, such as requesting the date of a hearing on an issue.

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

Monday, February 15, 2010

Panel split on whether to keep Century Commission

The Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida narrowly avoided getting targeted for elimination on Monday.

The commission, whose members are named by the governor, Senate president and House speaker, was established in 2005 to issue recommendations for maintaining Florida's quality of life as the state's population continues to grow.

The commission now is studying the issue of offshore oil drilling and is expected to provide its research to the Legislature as it goes into session on March 2.

The Joint Legislative Sunset Review Committee voted 5-4 against recommending that the Century Commission be abolished. The action was suggested as part of a review of the Florida Department of Community Affairs.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon and committee chairman, said the Century Commission should be abolished because she said DCA is overseeing growth management and water-management districts and utilities are planning for water needs.

But Rep. Faye Culp, R-Tampa and committee co-chair, said she looked over the commission's annual reports and thought the state should keep the panel.

The Century Commission, whose work was praised two weeks ago by members of the House Military and Local Affairs Policy Committee, received $6,400 from the state this year, which wasn't enough to maintain the panel's web site, said Tim Center, commission executive director.

The commission received $450,000 from the state in 2005. The Collins Center for Public Policy this year provided more than $150,000 to support the commission and the unpaid commission members traveled to meetings at their own expense, Center said.

"The Century Commision exists to try to create a sense of vision for Florida over the long term," said Andy McLeod, a Century Commission member and director of governmental affairs for The Trust for Public Land. "I think it is very forward-looking."

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

Update: Scientist questions springs nitrogen limit

State officials for the first time are saying they know at what level of nitrate in groundwater that springs lose their ecological balance.

Florida has more than 700 named springs, several of which are the central attraction at state and local parks across the state. But many of those springs have become choked with weeds and algae as nitrate levels in groundwater have increased.

Busloads of springs supporters are traveling to Tallahassee on Tuesday for a noon rally at the Capitol to show support for expected legislation that would regulate the discharge of nitrogen into groundwater. Also Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency holds hearings in Tallahassee on proposed nitrogen and phosphorus limits for springs and other waterways.

A state rule says that pollution discharges are not allowed if they create an "imbalance" of plants, fish and wildlife. But some environmentalists and scientists said that narrative standard has hamstrung springs protection because the standard was difficult to define, forcing officials to wait until the damage was done.

But the Florida Department of Environmental Protection now is saying that the imbalance occurs when nitrate-nitrogen in springs reaches .35 milligrams per liter of water. That's about seven times the amount of nitrate that occurred naturally in springs, said Jerry Brooks, director of DEP's Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration.

"That is a number we think is well-supported in science," Brooks said.

One environmental activist said having a number will help the state protect springs. But one water quality scientist who specializes in springs ecology said the state's number may be too high.

Until recently, the only numeric limit for nitrate in springs was the safe drinking water standard of 10 milligrams per liter. But the usually clear, blue springs have turned green at much lower nitrate levels.

Wakulla Springs had just over 1 milligram per liter of nitrate in it when it started becoming choked with weeds and algae after 2000. Sources of nitrogen include wastewater plant discharges, septic tanks, fertilizer and dirty stormwater runoff.

Brooks said the new nitrate limit will be used in deciding whether to approve pollution permits. For springs where the nitrate level already is too high, DEP will work with landowners and utilities and other stakeholders to reduce nitrogen discharges.

The .35 springs nitrate limit also is being proposed by the U.S. EPA . But the proposed federal rule faces opposition from agriculture, industry and utilities and has been questioned by DEP officials.

Brooks said EPA is proposing the same limit that DEP now is using. Whatever happens to the proposed EPA rule, Brooks said, DEP can continue using the limit in determining the health of springs under the state's narrative rule that prohibits the "imbalance" of fish and wildlife.

Jim Stevenson, a former DEP biologist who is coordinator of the state working groups for Ichetucknee and Wakulla springs, said having the numeric limit is important.

"I was pleased to hear it would be that low considering the opposition there is going to be," Stevenson said. "I think that is a really good level."

Robert Knight, president and founder of Wetlands Solutions Inc. in Gainesville, pointed out that the nitrate limit in springs 100 years ago was .05 milligrams per liter. The St. Johns River Water Management District last year set a limit of .21 milligrams of nitrate per liter for Wekiva Springs.

"I just want them (state and federal officials) to acknowledge that .35 is a target for protection," he said. "But the actual historic level is much lower than that. And it may need to be lower than that to have full recovery (of springs)."

The EPA will hold hearings Wednesday in Orlando and Thursday in West Palm Beach. To register, go on the web to

To learn more about the springs rally, go to

(Photo by James Valentine used with permission by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

North Florida residents describe threats to springs, rivers

A World War II memorial is silhouetted against a gray sky along the St. Johns River in Palatka

PALATKA -- Marihelen Wheeler of Gainesville today told a Senate committee hearing along the St. Johns River that when she's been to hearings in the past on environmental issues, government representatives listened and nodded their heads but they're were not really hearing what was said.

"They pat you on the head -- the lawmakers and legislators -- and say, '…Thank you for coming and thank you for your interest. Now you go home and we'll take care of it," she said.

But members of the Senate Select Committee on Florida's Inland Waters told the more than 100 residents at the hearing that they were listening -- really. And they urged speakers to keep telling other senators and representatives what they want.

The committee is holding hearings around the state towards developing legislation addressing Florida's water threats. The Legislature's 10-week session begins March 2.

The senators in Palatka heard about North Florida's springs and lakes drying up, the St. Johns River turning green from algal blooms and the region's desire to protect its water from being piped south to growing Central Florida.

Some speakers cited a Gainesville Sun report today that groundwater pumping by Jacksonville could be reducing flows about 70 miles away at Ichetucknee Springs.

Further south near Ocala, flows from Silver Springs dropped by 30 percent in the last decade, environmental scientist Bob Knight said. He is president of Wetlands Solutions Inc. in Gainesville.

Knight also said that about one-third of Florida's groundwater has nitrogen at levels well above what the state says is healthy for springs. A few wells have nitrogen above the level fit for human consumption.

"This is not going to be solved easily," said Knight, president of Wetlands Solutions Inc. "It takes state action to deal with this."

Other residents said the St. Johns River Water Management District is encouraging Central Florida to plan for piping water from North Florida rivers. Supporters and opponents in the fight to remove the Rodman Reservoir dam from the Ocklawaha River were united in opposing water transfers from the region.

"I ask you to stand up to these big, powerful Central Florida counties," Whitey Markle of Citra said.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland and a candidate for governor, told speakers they were "preaching to the choir." Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs and committee chairman, said, "We would love to have all of you in Tallahassee to help us."

Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, said the hearing testimony was "incredibly impressive." He is not on the committee but attended because his district includes Palatka.

Committee members, Thrasher said, "care about our state, they care about our water quality and our future."

Linda Myers of Palatka said she was excited to be singing to the choir because she expects the senators attending the hearing in Palatka to put a strong state policy in place.

"In North Florida, we want you to say, 'Yes' -- to understanding that water is not a commodity to us," she said. "We live it, we play it -- it is a source of our life and a source of our enjoyment. We don't want water to become a plug-in figure in growth management. It's our quality (of life)."

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

Thursday, February 11, 2010

PSC chairwoman says enemies want her off panel

Florida Public Service Commission Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano says Senate talk of beefing up educational requirements for the PSC is aimed at getting her off the panel.

Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 appointed Argenziano, a former state senator, to a four-year term. The Miami Herald reported today that Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne and Senate president in 2011, said he wants education requirements for the PSC to be beefed up.

"Don't kid yourself -- that is about getting rid of me," Argenziano told Argenziano said she attended Broward Community College but left after seven months because she was trying to raise her child as a single mother while working three jobs.

"Perhaps Senator Haridopolos should be beefing up the qualifications to be Senate president and to be in the Legislature," she said late Thursday.

Haridopolos cited the reported backgrounds of David Klement and Ben A. "Steve" Stevens III, who were appointed by Crist in 2009 and could face Senate scrutiny in their confirmations. Klement was director of a policy institute at the University of South Florida and Stevens is an accountant.

Argenziano joined the commission majority in voting down utility rate increases last month and shehas questioned PSC staff members on their approaches to some issues. As a senator, she butted heads with some lobbyists and powerful business interests.

Speaking Wednesday night on the Florida Public Radio Network's "Florida on the Line," Argenziano predicted she won't be reappointed in 2011.

She said being truthful is more difficult than not speaking out.

"I have had opposition sent my way in elections," she told one caller who praised her candor. "And in my estimation, I probably won't get reappointed to the position."

Asked later by program host Margie Menzel what Argenziano will do if her PSC career goes "down in flames," the chairwoman responded, "I'm going to predict that today. I've already predicted it."

She also said a bill is needed this year to replace the Public Service Commission Nominating Council, whose members are appointed by the House Speaker and Senate President. She said a new nominating process is needed to remove the influence of campaign contributions from regulated utilities to legislators.

Argenziano also talked about creating a statewide government watchdog organization after she leaves the PSC. But she said she didn't want to go into detail because she didn't want to give her political enemies "a heads-up as to what I may do."

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

Drilling protest at beaches on Saturday

Opponents of oil drilling are holding hands in a protest at beaches and other sites across the state on Saturday. Called "Hands Across the Sand," the event is open to anyone, organizers say.

"This is a simple, nonpartisan way for Floridians to join hands in an effort to protect our state's most important asset -- our waterways and beaches," Dave Rauschkolb, a Seaside restaurant owner who came up with the event idea, said in a statement

The protest will be held at 1 p.m. EST. A list of locations is available at .

House panel hears about oil spills, beach sand

Members of a House panel Wednesday were provided with oil spill figures and they were told that seismic research is needed to find offshore deposits of beach sand before oil drilling is allowed.

The House Select Policy Council on Strategic & Economic Planning is holding hearings towards developing legislation to allow oil drilling in Florida waters, which extend 10.3 miles from the Gulf coast.

Coast Guard Capt. James Hanzalik said that about 230,000 gallons had been released since 1998 during about 5,000 spills from oil and gas platforms.

A spill must be reported for amounts as little as a teaspoon if it creates an oil sheen on the water's surface, Hanzalik said.

"I have to confess I've done that with suntan oil," replied Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda.

Thomas Campbell, president of Coastal Planning & Engineering, told the council that seismic research is needed to identify high-quality sand deposits before oil and gas rigs and pipelines are placed on the sea bottom.

He said developing data for 10 million acres of potential quality sand would cost about $20 million and could be completed in a year.

Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park and council chairman, said the testimony suggested that there are plans or measures in place to help drilling co-exist with other coastal uses.

"I'm hopeful the information we are hearing from folks today may be reassuring," he said.

But after the meeting Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, disputed the spill statistics by pointing out that one spill could involve thousands of gallons -- not just a teaspoonful.

"I think it actually shows how complex the issues are," Fitzgerald said. His district was the focus of Campbell's presentation on the search for quality beach sand for a restoration project on Anna Maria Island.

Gary Appelson, policy coordinator with the Caribbean Conservation Corp. in Gainesville, said spills will continue to happen and Florida is unique in having vast seagrass meadows, reef wrecks and mangrove trees along its coast.

"We have yet to hear anyone talk about how to mitigate for those unique Florida habitats," he said.

The Council is scheduled to hold another hearing Feb. 18 on drilling issues.

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

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Land-buying in crosshairs of Florida House panel

Members of a house budget-writing panel today took another shot at the Florida Forever land-buying program.

Florida Forever is the largest land-buying program in the nation and is a budget priority for environmental groups and Gov. Charlie Crist. But the program received no money from the Legislature last year for the first time since the program was created in 1990.

Today, members of the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee ranked Florida Forever at No. 2 on a list of 51 spending programs that could be cut in fiscal year 2010-11.

Last week, committee members did not include Florida Forever on a list of programs that should be protected. Democrats on the committee have not turned in worksheets as Democratic leaders have protested the budget exercise.

Some committee members raised concerns about the district's planned purchase of 72,500 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land for $533 million to pay for Everglades restoration. Both Democrats and Republicans said they agreed with Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-
Vero Beach and council chair, that the state should not be buying more land.

"I don't think we ought to spend one more dime on land until we pay off our debt," said Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights.

Some committee members also suggested that the state look for land that it can sell to help meet its revenue needs, which is also proposed in the draft "Jobs for Florida" bill in the Senate.

Audubon of Florida's Julie Wraithmell said after the meeting that the state should wait rather than sell when land prices are low. "We think there is a strong case to be made for our work is not over yet and we have some tremendous opportunities given the state's real estate market," she said.

The committee is expected to discuss Florida Forever in more detail when it meets on Feb. 18. Poppell said Carol Ann Wehle, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, will be asked to speak at the meeting.

The committee agreed with a request by Rep. Stephen L. Precourt, R-Orlando, to request information about the environmental purposes of individual state landholdings.

Audubon's Wraithmell said Precourt's questions were insightful.

"I'm optimistic that, with a further vetting of all those benefits of the program, there will be meaningful discussion about continuing that legacy" of Florida Forever, she said.

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

PSC almost knocks down Gainesville biomass plant

Conceptual rendering of American Renewables proposed plant in Gainesville

The Florida Public Service Commission on Tuesday appeared ready to vote down a proposed biomass power plant in Gainesville before city officials asked the PSC to delay the vote.

Gainesville officials say the 100-megawatt American Renewables LLC plant will provide needed renewable energy and reduce the city's dependence on coal plants, which contribute greenhouse gases.

But three of the five PSC commissioners said they would have difficulty voting to declare that the plant is needed as required by state law.

The city won't need the power produced by the plant until 2023, even though the plant would begin operating in 2013, according to the PSC.

City officials hope to sell power to other electric utilities and benefit from a federal investment tax credit and greenhouse gas legislation pending in Congress.

But if the city can't sell the power, the plant will cost $100 million during the 30-year life of the project, according to the PSC.

"They are taking a huge risk with rate-payers' money here," Commissioner Nathan Skop said. Still, he and other commissioners praised Gainesville for planning ahead for its power needs -- perhaps too far ahead.

The PSC delayed action at the request of Gainesville officials, who said they wanted to present additional information before the commission voted at a later date.

Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan said after the meeting that building a smaller plant may not be as cost-effective. She said the city is on a tight deadline to take advantage of the federal tax credit.

"That makes a substantial difference in the economics of the project," she said. "To try to remain on track enough that we can still qualify for that 30 percent tax credit."

She also said the city had delayed its need for the new power plant through an aggressive program to promote solar energy and conservation.

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

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Florida Cabinet approves 2,800-acre land buy

Flint Rock WMA

The governor and Cabinet today approved the state purchase of 2,849 acres in Jefferson County.

The state will pay The Nature Conservancy $5.2 million, or $1,841 per acre, for the land, which previously was owned by The St. Joe Co. The land has been managed as a portion of the Flint Rock Wildlife Management Area by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The purchase was one of the largest approved by the Cabinet during a 12-month period in which few projects have moved forward. Bonds for the Florida Forever land-buying program were not sold until late last year because of the tight bond market.

The area extends from U.S. Highway 98 south to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The purchase would protect a corridor of habitat between the refuge and another state wildlife management area along the Aucilla River.

The area is has been designated a "strategic habitat conservation area" by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It provides habitat for black bears and swallow-tailed kites and is potential habitat for the eastern indigo snake and flatwoods salamander.

In January 2008, The Nature Conservancy purchased the property as part of a deal for 10,905 acres in the area.

(Map courtesy of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission).

Friday, February 5, 2010

Florida delegation, DEP's Sole oppose EPA standards

Federal proposed water quality standards for Florida received more protests this week from Florida officials.

Springs across the state have become choked with weeds and algae in recent years while toxic algal blooms have flourished in the St. Johns River and along the southwest Florida Gulf coast.

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency on Jan. 15 proposed more specific limits for nitrogen and phosphorus in lakes and rivers. EPA and the state Department of Environmental Protection agreed last year that the new standard were needed to protect Florida's water quality.

But DEP Secretary Michael Sole said this week that the EPA, in developing the proposed standards, had used a computer model that effectively doesn't work for Florida.

He told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee that 68 percent of Florida's "pristine" waters would fail to meet the proposed federal rule. He also said EPA's estimated cost of $1.5 billion for Florida to meet the proposed standards appears too low.

"We need to focus on the work that is going to actually gain an environmental benefit," he said. "The concern we have is these (federal standards) as proposed have no significant environmental lift."

Also this week, 20 members of Florida's congressional delegation followed industry groups last week in requesting that the EPA extend the 60-day comment period on the rule.

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

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Sub-sea drilling technology shown to House

Members of a House panel today were told that oil and gas production platforms built more than 13 miles offshore would not be visible from the coast.

The House Select Policy Council on Strategic & Economic Planning is holding hearings towards developing legislation that would lift the state's 20-year-old ban on drilling in Florida waters.

Those waters extend 10 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico and three miles into the Atlantic. Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park and council chairman, said Jan. 14 he's interested in legislation that would require oil and gas production to be out of sight from the coast.

Today, council members were shown a futuristic video of equipment positioned on the ocean floor that can extract oil and gas without having rigs on the surface.

Frank C. Adamek, executive chief engineer for GE Oil & Gas, said the energy products can be piped 100 miles or more to platforms, loading terminals for ships or onshore storage facilities. The economic feasibility of it all, Adamek said, may depend on whether companies can tie into existing pipelines or loading facilities.

After the meeting, Cannon said the Legislature could require use of such technologies without concern for the cost.

"We don't set the price-point," he said. "What we set are proper safeguards to make sure we protect Floridians' interests."

The council meets again Feb. 10 to discuss oil and gas accidents and competing uses for Florida's waters.

Artist's rendition of oil production equipment from GE presentation to House. To download, click here.

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

Land-buying falls short in House committee

Florida's conservation land-buying program was not included among 38 priorities identified by members of a House panel.

The Florida Forever land-buying program is a 2010-11 budget priority for Gov. Charlie Crist and environmental groups. Florida Forever is the largest land-buying program in the nation with 2.4 million acres having been purchased since 1990.

But the program received no money from the Legislature last year and could run out of cash by the end of the year. Members of the House Natural Resources Appropriations committee were asked to each rank eight priorities among 81 spending items.

Half of the 14 committee members turned in priority worksheets, and none marked the $200 million in bonding authority for Florida Forever. One member marked Everglades restoration, suggested at $100 million in bonding, as a priority.

Crist requested $50 million in bonding for each program. Including them in the budget would cost nearly $10 million in additional spending in 2010-11 for debt service.

Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach and committee chairman, said Florida Forever still could get money -- depending on revenue estimates and further direction from House leaders on the amount of money the committee has to budget for 2010-11.

"People want us to spend the money wisely and be held accountable," he said. "We can't do everything they want us to do."

After the meeting, Audubon of Florida representative Julie Wraithmell said Florida Forever is not over yet.

"It's a program with a lot of (public) support," she said.

Committee members now are being asked to rank the priority programs with the lowest priorities totaling at least $294.6 million. Democrats have objected to the budget exercise in Natural Resources Appropriations and other House committees.

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

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Bennett says DCA won't be eliminated "on my watch"

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, today said elimination of the Florida Department of Community Affairs "is not going to happen on my watch."

Bennett, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Community Affairs, could play a key role in maintaining DCA as the chief state agency responsible for enforcing Florida's growth management laws. The agency this year is undergoing a "sunset" review under state law to determine if the need for the agency.

Amid criticism of DCA last year, the House Military and Local Affairs Committee introduced a bill that would abolish the department and shift its planning oversight to the Florida Department of State. DCA Secretary Tom Pelham faces criticism from developers for questioning the need for new projects.

Although Bennett doesn't serve on the Joint Legislative Sunset Committee, his Committee on Community Affairs will take up whatever legislation the Sunset panel proposes. Speaking today to the Florida Chapter of the American Planning Association Public Policy Workshop, Bennett said abolishing the department "is never going to happen on my watch."

"We need oversight," he said. "We need a central planning agency to keep us all in line."

Other speakers at the FAPA annual Public Policy Workshop said the Legislature, during an election year, may seek to avoid controversy by extending the DCA sunset review until next year.

The controversial proposed Amendment 4, known as "Florida Hometown Democracy," may persuade legislators to do little on growth management issues, some capital observers said.

Amendment 4 would require voter approval of changes to local comprehensive growth plans. Business groups and some local governments oppose the measure while a few environmental groups support it.

Several speakers said they don't expect significant growth legislation this year because lawmakers don't want to provide ammunition for Amendment 4 supporters.

"We are very concerned about Amendment 4," Bennett said. "We don't want to do anything to fire that up."

When he's asked what the Legislature will do this session, Bennett said he responds, "Not very much."

"On growth management," he said, "right now we don't have much growth to manage."

He said SB 360, which revamped some aspects of growth law last year, still is being implemented.

Bennett said he would like to see some permitting duplication eliminated.

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

Panel issues growth recommendations, struggles for money

A state panel created by the Legislature to make recommendations on growth management and quality of life issues has produced its fourth annual report while it struggles with lack of state funding.

The Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida this year has issued four recommendations, most of them suggesting follow-up action on previous recommendations.

The commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, House speaker and Senate president, received $450,000 a year from the state when it was created by the Legislature in 2005 but received only $6,400 last year, commission Executive Director Tim Center told the House Military and Local Affairs Policy Committee.

"That was not enough technically to pay for the hosting fee for the web site," Center said. He said the Collins Center for Public Policy is paying the commission staff salaries and that the unpaid commissioners are paying their own travel expenses to attend meetings.

The commission already is working on one recommendation: Establishing a fact-finding process on coastal oil drilling in conjunction with Senate research on the issue.

The commission also is recommending that the governor and Legislature explore incentives for "cool roofs" and other reflective building surfaces that can reduce energy use.

Another recommendation calls for the Legislature to fund a second "water congress" -- this one dealing with water quality -- to follow up on the 2008 Florida Water Congress dealing with water quantity issues. In its legislative package last year, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection proposed many of the 2008 Water Congress recommendations but only two were approved, Center said.

Saying that Florida's sustainable water supply now is in "serious jeopardy," Center urged the committee to take up the remaining recommendations from the 2008 Florida Water Congress.

"This is low hanging fruit -- if not fruit on the ground -- and is something that could be done immediately," he said.

The fourth recommendation calls for a process of engaging landowners, agricultural interests, government agencies and environmental groups to create a blueprint for conserving Florida's clean water and air.

Several committee members praised the commission for its thorough research.

"I think we take them seriously," said Rep. Dorothy L. Hukill, R-Port Orange and committee chairwoman told "The reason they (commission recommendations) are broad is so they can make a recommendation that they can say there is broad support for."

To download a copy of the commission's recommendations, go to .

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Senators hear plight of Wakulla Springs

A manatee surfaces in Wakulla Springs near a tour boat carrying members and staff of the Senate Select Committee on Florida's Inland Waters

Eight Florida senators today heard from Wakulla Springs State Park supporters about their efforts to fight increasing nitrogen levels that have caused the springs to become choked with weeds and algae.

The Senate Select Committee on Florida's Inland Waters is holding hearings around the state as it develops possible legislation to regulate pollution affecting springs. Committee members toured Wakulla Springs by boat, viewing alligators, manatees and an assortment of bird life.

Representatives of Friends of Wakulla Springs told senators they had to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that Tallahassee wastewater was to blame for nitrogen in groundwater at Wakulla Springs before the city and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection took action.

"Government has not done a good job of protecting springs -- I think this one is a case study in that," said Dorothy Routh, a founding member of Friends of Wakulla Springs.

A DEP representative responded by pointing out that DEP paid for a study that traced the groundwater under the city spray field flowing to Wakulla Springs.

Other speakers said that springs around the state are affected by a variety of nitrogen sources, including farms, septic tanks and dirty stormwater runoff.

"I think what we all understand and need to understand with legislation going forward is that one size does not fit all," said Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs and committee chairman.

He has introduced SB 568, the Florida Springs Protection Act, which he describes as a placeholder while the committee develops legislation.

The committee meets again Feb. 12 in Palatka, Feb. 22 in Punta Gorda and Feb. 25 (tentative) in Gainesville.

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

Florida utility commission reform bill clears committee

A bill by Sen. Mike Fasano to require that communications between Public Service Commission members and regulated utilities be posted publicly was approved today by a Senate committee.

Fasano, R-New Port Richey, introduced SB 1034 after the news media last fall revealed numerous contacts between commissioners and Florida Power & Light Co. representatives during hearings on the utility's rate hike request.

Those reports detailed "one of the most egregious violations of the public trust," Fasano told the Senate Committtee on Communications, Energy and Public Utilities.

The bill includes commission staff in an existing prohibition against commissioners' ex parte -- or private -- communications with legally interested parties in cases before the PSC. Notices of such contacts must be posted on the commission web site within 72 hours.

Former commissioners also would be prohibited for two years from being employed by a regulated utility or a business or trade association that has participated in a PSC hearing. Former commissioners and PSC advisory staff would be banned from lobbying the legislative or executive branches for two years.

The commission supports the changes, said PSC General Counsel Curt Kiser, a former state senator. The commission is considering tougher draft legislation that would provide civil penalties on utility officials or other parties parties who participate in ex parte communications.

Commissioner Nathan Skop told that proposed reforms are "long overdue" as called for in a 1992 grand jury report.

"Every four or five years you have the commission in the crossfire for ethics issues," Skop said. "It seems to me if they were to embrace the 1992 grand jury findings … that would go along way to addressing the systemic problems that occur."

Fasano said he's willing to consider the changes being considered by the PSC. "I don't want to get into this their's-is-tougher than-our's (comparison)," he said. "The law is so weak today."

Fasano also said he expects the bill to be voted on during the first week of the session, which starts March 2. The bill now goes to the Senate Rules Committee.

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

Monday, February 1, 2010

DEP report backs off earlier bag ban recommendation

In a report released today, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection backed off an earlier draft recommendation to ban disposable shopping bags.

The Legislature in 2008 directed DEP to issue recommendations on regulating plastic and paper bags and banned local governments from adopting regulations.

DEP in October released a draft report that called for banning paper and plastic bags by 2015. But the department withdrew the draft report and removed it from its web site after a firestorm of opposition from conservative commentators and business groups.

The report issued today describes problems caused by plastic bags in the environment but merely outlines 12 options rather than proposing action. The options range in regulatory scope from launching an educational campaign or encouraging recycling in stores to implementing a fee on individual bags or banning them entirely.

A Florida Retail Federation representative praised DEP for highlighting the voluntary efforts of store chains but said the report still contained the per-bag fee recommendation that retailers oppose. "We don't think our customers should be taxed," said Samantha Hunter Padgett, the federation's deputy general counsel.

A Sierra Club state chapter representative said the report was thorough and she hopes the Legislature takes action on it. "I understand why they (DEP officials) didn't" make a stronger recommendation, said Cecilia Height of Winter Park, a member of Sierra Club's waste minimization committee. "But I applaud the amount of homework they put into the thing."

To view the report, go on the web to: .

(Photo from DEP retail bags report. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Understanding of Gulf ecology lacking in drilling debate

Venus purse anemone on a patch of Lophelia coral at 2500 feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico.

Scientists' lack of understanding about the complex relationships between marine organisms should be considered in the debate about oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, Florida State University researchers said today.

FSU is holding its second symposium on oil drilling with the focus today on the gulf ecology and regulatory impacts of drilling. House and Senate leaders are proceeding separately towards possibly developing oil drilling legislation during the upcoming legislative session, which begins March 2.

During a morning news conference, FSU researchers said the decision on whether to drill would be made by policymakers -- without researchers telling them whether it would be harmful to the Gulf environment. But FSU Coastal and Marine Lab Director Felicia Coleman also said there is a lack of information about ecological relationships and the effects of drilling on the Gulf ecology and the services it provides, such as fishing.

"If we don't really understand (what) the implications or consequences are to disrupting those services, that is something we need to have a better hold of," she said. "You always take the risk of reaching a tipping point beyond which you can't come back. And it would be nice to know where that is before you get that far."

Ian MacDonald, a professor in FSU's Department of Oceanography, said oil and gas production has a good safety record in the Gulf of Mexico but the industry also has been surprised by the level of damage from hurricanes in recent years.

"I guess my feeling is the deep sea can be a good place a good place to produce oil and gas if the regulation is sufficiently informed by good science and well-regulated and well-enforced by a vigilant federal mission or state mission."

Federal laws protecting endangered species, such as manatees, whales and corals, also would apply to drilling within Florida waters, which extend to 10 miles from the coast, FSU law professor J.B. Ruhl said. Beyond those Florida waters, restrictions on drilling and exploration in designated marine protected areas also would apply.

The deep Gulf waters are as biologically-rich as a rainforest and should no longer be considered a "barren desert," researchers said.

Some "chemosynthetic" ecological communities convert into food some of the oil and gas seeping from the ocean floor, MacDonald said.

But he said it would be over-simplistic to suggest that drilling or oil spills would actually be good for those organisms. Those ecological communities thrive on gas and oil that is slowly released, widely dispersed and is more diluted than would occur in an oil spill, MacDonald said.

"Yes, the ocean can adapt to small quantities of oil and gas if they are widely dispersed and not too concentrated at any time," he said. "However that doesn't excuse the oil companies or transport companies from exercising all possible care to prevent any kind of accidents."

The symposium was coordinated by the FSU Institute for Energy Systems, Economics and Sustainability. For more information on the institute, go to .

(Top photo by Peter Etnoyer.
Bottom photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)