Friday, May 28, 2010

Crist vetoes rule-making bill

Gov. Charlie Crist on Friday vetoed HB 1565, saying the rule-making bill violated the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of state government.

The bill required the Legislature to approve agency rules that would cost economic growth in excess of $1 million or affect private sector innovation or competition with other states for jobs.

Those supporting the bill included the Florida Association of Counties, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Association of Home Builders, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Florida Community Developers. They said it would curb unreasonable rule-making by agencies.

But Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham said the bill would "greatly complicate" the approval of rules that are needed to carry out state law. Audubon of Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida, Sierra Club Florida and the St. Johns River Water Management District also called for a veto.

"If HB 1565 did become law, nearly every rule may have to await an act of the Legislature to become effective," Crist wrote in his veto letter. "This could increase costs to businesses, create more red tape and potentially harm Florida's economy."

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Tar balls could be on beaches for months

A worker removes oil from a beach in Louisiana on May 23. No oil connected with the Deepwater Horizon spill has been confirmed on Florida beaches.

Researchers are concerned that a sub-surface plume of oil could threaten Florida's coast for months even if BP is successful in capping a gushing oil well. The Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Louisiana Coast already has dumped an estimated 18 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, making it the largest spill in U. S. history.

On Friday, BP continued its "Top Kill" procedure that was intended to stop the leak by choking off the flow of oil by pumping heavy rilling "muds" into the well.

Scientists with the Oil Spill Academic Task have advised the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on possible worst-case scenarios -- all fraught with uncertainty -- if the spill continues, said Robert K. Cowen, associate dean for research as the Rosentiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Miami.

Those worst-case scenarios include a plume of dispersed oil beneath the surface -- in addition to an oil slick -- moving into the Straits of Florida where it could harm coral reefs in the Florida Keys and eventually threaten the east coast. Some oil was trapped this week within a circulating eddy in the Gulf loop current and was moving away from Florida and the straits, DEP Secretary Mike Sole told the Cabinet this week.

Another worst-case scenario, Cowen said, would involve oil being churned up from the ocean's depths by storms and coming ashore for weeks or even months after the spill is capped. "There are a lot of unknowns," he said. "Even if they stop the oil (leak) and the (loop current) eddy is pinched off, we are not necessarily out of the woods." He said data on the location and movement of oil is needed but is challenging because of its size and complexity of the spill and currents.

Sole told reporters on Tuesday that the spill could pose a threat for months even as he was sharing the good news that none had hit Florida beaches and that the currents were working in the state's favor. "I do expect as you look at the long-term fate and transport of an oil spill of this magnitude you will see tar balls and tar patties for a long time," Sole said. "When a storm comes, you suddenly have a few more tar balls on the beach than normal."

(U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley. Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Spill tops Exxon Valdez as McCollum, Sink weigh in

Vessels conduct "top kill" operation at oil spill site in Gulf of Mexico. (Coast Guard photo)

A BP official said Thursday that it was too soon to know whether the "top kill" operation aimed at ending the gush of oil from the damaged oil well off the Louisiana coast was working.

BP was planning to pump more drilling "mud" into the gushing well Thursday night in an attempt to stop the flow, said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer. "Until we've completed the job and the well is no longer flowing, it's difficult to be optimistic or pessimistic," he said.

Forecasters said Thursday the spill that begin April 20 still was not a threat to the Florida coast within 72 hours. In Escambia County, test results were still not available to determiner whether 100 tar balls that were found Wednesday along a beach were from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

On Thursday, the U. S. Geological Survey reported that the well was gushing more than twice the amount previously estimated, making the spill larger than the Exxon Valdez. A science team estimated the flow rate at between 500,000 to 800,000 gallons per day, more than double the previous estimate by BP and the Coast Guard.

President Barack Obama announced Thursday he is extending a moratorium on drilling deep water wells for six months in depths of more than 500 feet. "It is my job to make sure that everything is being done to shut this down," Obama said at a White House news conference.

Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican candidate for governor, said the president's news conference reinforced Floridians' views that the federal government is not doing everything it can to prevent further damage. "The administration has been derelict in removing administrative barriers to help the Gulf states prevent the catastrophe from reaching our shores and is now appearing to take credit for the top kill solution -- a standard industry practice -- to bolster its lack of engagement and lackluster response," McCollum said.

CFO Alex Sink, a Democratic candidate for governor, asked Gov. Charlie Crist to activate an emergency loan program to help businesses and to send a Florida Department of Environmental Protection crew to Louisiana to observe the response. A DEP spokeswoman said the department is reviewing the request.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

PSC approves Gainesville biomass plant

Conceptual rendering of American Renewables proposed plant in Gainesville

A biomass power plant proposed by Gainesville was narrowly approved Thursday by the Florida Public Service Commission after nearly being voted down in February. The commission split 3-2 in favor of the plant.

Gainesville Regional Utilities requested a determination of need for the 100-megawatt plant that would be built and operated on city property by American Renewables of Boston. The needs determination request was being closely watched by both supporters and opponents of biomass energy in Florida.

“The PSC has taken an important step today toward significantly expanding Florida’s commitment to renewable energy,” Jim Gordon, chief executive officer of American Renewables, said in a statement following the vote.

But opponent Paula Stahmer told The Florida Tribune the vote would hurt GRU customers and encourage landowners to replace natural forests with rows of pine trees to provide fuel for the plant.

Supporter say biomass is renewable energy that provides a cleaner alternative to fossil fuels, produces jobs and helps Florida agriculture. Opponents say the proposed plants threaten to drive up the cost of wood and are more polluting than conserving electricity or producing it from solar, wind and waves. The Gainesville plant faces opposition from the local Sierra Club and NAACP chapters. But the proposal has support from the local legislative delegation and the Florida Municipal Electric Association.

In February, a majority of PSC commissioners spoke against the plant and the cost to city ratepayers. The plant isn't needed before 2023 and will cost customers between $3 and $13 per month, according to PSC staff. City officials said building the plant now would allow GRU to take advantage of tax incentives and get an early entry into the market for renewable energy credits under greenhouse gas emissions regulations.

Gainesville residents Dian Deevey and Paula Stahmer asked the PSC this week to delay action because they said a new federal greenhouse gas emissions rule would apply to the plant, raising the cost of electricity. But the commission voted to reject the request after PSC's legal staff said federal officials assured them that the plant wouldn't be subject to the new rule if it receives its federal air permit by Jan. 2, 2011.

Commissioner Nathan A. Skop, who raised concerns about the project in February, indicated that he probably would vote against the project -- if it were submitted by a private utility. "We are being asked to pretty much sign off on a blank check with a lot of things that are not fully known," Skop said.

But he and Commissioner Lisa Edgar said they were inclined vote for the project in deference to the Gainesville's elected officials. Edgar, Skop and David Klement voted for the plant.

Commission Chairman Nancy Argenziano - and who voted no along with Commissioner Ben "Steve" Stevens - pointed out that the PSC staff recommendation to approve the project stated that there was "considerable uncertainty" about the economic viability of the project.

"In no way am I saying there are not many things of great value and merit to this case," she said. "What I'm looking at is what the statute tells me (to look at)."

Stahmer, the opponent who intervened in the case, predicted the plant would be destructive to North Florida's forests.

"Trees don't grow over night," Stahmer said after the vote. "And it's going to put a lot of pressure on forest management -- I think the wrong kind of pressure."

This will be the last major decision by the current commission because Stevens and Klement have to step down because they were not confirmed by the Florida Senate.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

"Top kill" success on oil leak still unknown

BP on Wednesday began its "top kill" procedure for trying to stop an oil well leak in the Gulf of Mexico that threatens Florida's coast. There was no word whether the procedure was working.

The top kill involves pumping dense oil drilling "mud" and concrete through a malfunctioning blow-out preventer device. A BP official said during an 8 p.m. news conference that the procedure was continuing as expected but the outcome could not be determined yet.

The spill began April 20 following an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon rig about 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. No oil from the leak has been confirmed on Florida's beaches, state officials said.

The state on Tuesday received $25 million from BP to launch an advertising campaign to let would-be visitors know that the beaches are clean and the fish are biting.

Meanwhile, the state continues to review and approve plans for deploying boom to protect the coast should oil approach Florida, said Mike Sole, secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. The "top kill" procedure is the best hope for the state while a relief well is being dug to permanently seal the well in August, Sole said.

In Washington, U. S. Senator Bill Nelson, D-Melbourne, co-filed legislation to stop what he called a "revolving door" between regulators in the federal Minerals Management Service and the oil and gas industry. A drilling regulator who made any kind of false statement could face up to 15 years in prison under the bill.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Crist giving close look to rule-making bill

Gov. Charlie Crist says he is giving HB 1565 regarding agency rule-making "a close look" as he considers whether to sign the bill or veto it in response to opposition.

Crist has until Friday to sign the bill, which would require the Legislature to approve agency rules that cost economic growth in excess of $1 million or affect private sector innovation or competition with other states. The bill has support from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties. Last week, the Florida Home Builders Association and the Association of Florida Community Developers sent letters to Crist asking him to sign the bill.

Florida Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham has said the bill would "greatly complicate" the agency approval of rules that are needed to implement laws that the Legislature approved. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection also has concerns about the bill but neither department has asked the governor to veto it. Audubon of Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida and St. Johns River Water Management District staff have called on the governor to veto the bill. And Sierra Club Florida this week urged its supporters to call the governor requesting a veto.

Asked Tuesday by the Florida Tribune whether he will veto the bill in response to concerns from Pelham and others, Crist responded, "I'm giving it a close look, yeah. There is a lot of that going on." And regarding his veto pen, Crist quipped, "People are telling me I need to get more ink for that thing."

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Opponents argue that EPA rule affects biomass plant

Opponents of a proposed biomass gas electric plant in Gainesville are asking the Public Service Commission to delay an expected decision on Thursday because of a new federal rule dealing with greenhouse gas emissions.

The needs determination for the American Renewables plant proposed by Gainesville Regional Utilities is being watched closely by supporters and opponents of biomass power. Supporters say several such plants proposed around the state will provide needed renewable energy. But projects in Gulf, Manatee, Leon and Gadsden counties have been scrapped or face challenges because of local environmental concerns or opposition.

The PSC appeared poised in February to vote down GRU's request for the 100-megawatt power plant. A majority of commissioners questioned whether the plant was needed and said it could end up costing utility customers more if the city can't sell its energy. Gainesville officials asked to delay a decision so they could present additional information to address PSC concerns.

At a May 3 hearing, Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Cross Creek, presented a letter from members of the Gainesville legislative delegation in support of the plant. Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson told the commission that the project would create jobs and allow landowners to sell crops for renewable energy.

The PSC was scheduled to make a decision on Thursday before commissioners David E. Klement and Ben A. "Steve" Stevens III leave at the end of the month because the Senate refused to confirm them. The PSC staff last week recommended approval of the needs determination for the project. The overall cost effectiveness is heavily dependent upon future carbon regulation and the potential resale of half the power from the project, the recommendation said.

Dian Deevey and Paula Stahmer of Gainesville, who have intervened in the case as opponents, filed an emergency motion this week requesting a delay. They say the PSC must reopen the case to consider the impact that new U. S. Environmental Protection Agency greenhouse gas "tailoring" rule could have on the plant. They contend that the rule, issued May 13, would make it more difficult for GRU to sell credits in the future to offset greenhouse gas emissions by other plants around the country.

GRU utilities marketing manager Lewis Walton said the rule won't have an economic impact on the proposed plant. GRU has asked the PSC to issue the needs determination on Thursday, Walton said.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

State purchase to help Florida family stay in cattle business

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet on Tuesday approved the purchase of a 782-acre conservation easement in Osceola County that a ranching family said will help it stay in the cattle business.

Adams Ranch covers 33,000 acres and includes some virtually undisturbed areas that provide habitat for numerous threatened wildlife species, according to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and The Nature Conservancy. Last month, Adams Ranch was named one of the top-10 "at risk" state purchase areas by the Florida Forever Coalition.

Nearly 8,000 acres of Adams Ranch has been targeted by the state for preservation under the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program administered by the department. Under the program, the state purchases permanent legal agreements that can prohibit development and mining and restrict agriculture to activities to protect wildlife habitat. The state previously purchased a 677-acre conservation easement there.

A family member said the $1.6 million payment by the state for the conservation easement will allow the family to continue ranching as it has been for 70 years and four generations. The ranch is nationally recognized for its Braford cattle herd-breeding program, the department said.

"We believe that (state) programs like these will help family ranches such as ours stay together and continue producing food for people," said Lee Ann Adams, a member of the family's youngest generation.

Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson, who has criticized the state's conservation land purchase program this year, said the Adams Ranch project is a model because the landowners will continue paying property taxes while providing jobs, producing food and preserving the state's cattle heritage.

Environmental groups say they such support conservation easements but they add that land purchases also are needed to protect natural areas and provide public access.

(Photo by Carlton Ward Jr. courtesy of the Florida Forever Coalition. Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

State finally receives $25 million from BP for ad campaign

Gov. Charlie Crist announced Tuesday afternoon that Florida received $25 million from BP for advertising, offsetting criticism earlier in the day from a state senator that the governor wasn't doing enough in response to the spill.

At the state Emergency Operations Center, Crist announced shortly after 4 p.m. the receipt of the $25-million wire transfer from BP. VisitFlorida CEO and President Chris Thompson said the ads would begin airing within 24 to 48 hours in cities outside Florida from which people often drive to Florida.

New television commercials were being developed, Thompson said, after a morning meeting in which Cabinet members and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, criticized other VisitFlorida commercials. Cabinet members said the commercials did little to emphasize that Northwest Florida beaches had not received oil from the spill.

Gaetz also complained that the money pledged by BP to promote Florida beaches had yet to be spent. "It doesn't do any good for it to be in a pipeline somewhere," Gaetz said. Crist responded by saying, "Let me assure you we are doing everything humanly possible." Outside the meeting, the senator told reporters, "It's Day 35 and we haven't seen effective, timely action. It's in days like this that I miss Jeb Bush."

CFO Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson complained that the ads don't convey that Northwest Florida beaches are unaffected by the spill. "This does nothing to help Northwest Florida," Sink said. Bronson said the ads seemed as though they could have been filmed a year or two earlier. Thompson said he understood the sense of urgency for Northwest Florida, where beach season is kicking off this Memorial Day weekend.

And Crist responded that the state couldn't spend money it didn't have yet. "It's easy to try to point fingers and cast blame," he said. "What's important is to work as a team and for us to be focused on doing everything we can do possible to protect our beautiful state and tell friends in our neighboring states to come to the Panhandle."

Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, responded to Gaetz later by issuing a statement saying that hotel cancellations were not occurring only in the Panhandle and that "we are in this together as a state. " He also called on the Legislature and governor to support a constitutional ban on offshore oil drilling.

Later during the announcement at the EOC, Crist said he'd already called seven tourist development councils to tell them the money had been received. "They have ads in the can that are ready to go to tell travelers that the Florida beaches are clean and clear, the fish are biting and the Sunshine State, including Northwest Florida, is open for business," he said.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

2010-11 budget includes $15.5 million for beaches

Supporters of beach sand replacement projects are welcoming a $15.5 million appropriation in the 2010-11 state budget approved by the Legislature.

Gov. Charlie Crist did not request any new money for the projects but supported using $5 million in unspent money from prior year projects. The 2010-11 budget includes $10.5 million in new general revenue in addition to the previous $5 million from the Ecosystem Management and Restoration Trust Fund. Budget proviso language directs the money to go in priority order to projects in Dade County, Martin County (St. Lucie Inlet), Duval County, Manatee County (Anna Maria Island), Pinellas (Sand Key), Broward County and Long Key in Pinellas County.

Debbie Flack, president of the Florida Shore and Beach Preservation Association, said the appropriation was good considering the tough budget year. The group is made up of coastal cities and counties and has an all-government board of directors. But Flack also noted that Florida law requires $30 million in documentary stamp tax revenue yearly for the beach projects. "That ($15.5 million) is still fairly significant in these difficult economic times," she said. "I would hate to see it stay here indefinitely."

Beach sand replacement projects were profiled as wasteful and futile on NBC's "Fleecing of America" segment in March. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says for every dollar invested in beach restoration, the state receives a $6 to $8 economic return. Beaches have multiple benefits including protection from storm surges, providing habitat for plants and animals, enhancing property values and providing recreation space and attracting tourists, DEP said.

Flack said if approved by the governor, the $15.5 million can be used to match $44.1 million in anticipated federal and local dollars.

Crist has until Friday to act on HB 5001, the proposed state budget. He can use his line-item veto power to eliminate individual spending items.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

CFO Sink requests federal takeover as drilling opponents protest

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink on Monday asked President Barack Obama to direct the federal government to take away control by BP over the response to the ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Sink also asked the president to send top administration officials to brief the state Cabinet at its meeting on Tuesday.

BP said Monday it is pushing back until Wednesday its latest effort to stop the leak, called a "top kill" procedure. BP was expected by Monday to begin the procedure of pumping heavyweight fluids into the well to stop the leak but delayed the action until Wednesday because of "significant uncertainties."

In her letter to the president, Sink wrote, "For too long we have relied on BP and its contractors to staunch the flow of oil and they have failed at every turn. We are now more than a month out from this disaster, and Floridians want to know: Where is the federal government's leadership?"

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Monday, "We are not standing on the sidelines and letting BP do what BP wants to do. The federal government has mounted the largest response to fight this oil in all of the history of this country."

Gov. Charlie Crist, who talked to President Obama with other Gulf Coast governors on Monday, also said that he is "moving in that direction." "The sense of urgency our fellow Floridians feel is clear and present."

BP Chief of Operations Doug Suttles told reporters on a conference call Monday that the company has the most experience in the world with deep-water drilling and is bringing in experts from other companies and academia to help stop the spill. "I don't know of anything else we could do," Suttles said. "But if the government felt there were other things we could do, it is clearly in their power to do that."

Also Monday, about 60 protesters gathered on the steps of the historic capitol to protest against drilling as an audience of about 30 people watched. Organizers called on Crist and the Legislature to hold a special session to ban drilling and provide more money for renewable energy.

"Our beaches are the bread and butter of Florida," Kim Ross of Tallahassee, a protest organizer told the audience. "Now they are under threat. We didn't make that threat. We didn't ask for it. But now we are stuck with it." Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, and her primary opponent, Rick Minor, stood with the protestors on the steps.

Over the weekend, President Obama announced that he was naming former Florida Democratic senator and Gov. Bob Graham to co-chair a bipartisan commission that will make recommendations within six months on avoiding future spills.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

ERC approves tougher biosolids rule

The land application of sewage sludge, called biosolids, would be further restricted under rule revisions adopted last week by the state Environmental Regulation Commission.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection proposed rule revisions in 2009 because of increasing public concerns about environmental and health threats posed by the spreading of biosolids on farm fields and pastures. The rule allows the spreading of biosolids only at permitted facilities. The practice also must be established through a nutrient management plan. Class AA biosolids, which have been dried and processed, must be marketed and distributed as fertilizer. Utilities say spreading biosolids on land is a beneficial use of a waste product that otherwise would go in landfills.

But Audubon of Florida in 2009 issued a report calling for the state to ban the land disposal of biosolids in the Lake Okeechobee watershed. Audubon says the practice is contributing to the pollution of the lake, the Everglades and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, which are connected to the lake through canals.

On Thursday, Audubon objected to a portion of the proposed rule that allows Class AA biosolids to be given away to landowners, which Audubon says would contribute to dumping of the phosphorus-rich materials on land. "We want to make it a lot tougher for that kind of subterfuge to take place," said Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida's director of Advocacy.

Utilities want the flexibility to give away the biosolids if landowners are willing to put them to good use, said David Childs of the Hopping Green & Sams law firm, which represents utilities organized as the Florida Water Environment Association Utility Council. He said the utilities also oppose biosolids dumping but believe the practice is prohibited by the rule changes.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Photo copied from DEP presentation. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Saturday, May 22, 2010

New Panama City airport opens Sunday

Panama City and Bay County's new airport opens Sunday amid pomp and gala with state officials visiting on Saturday. Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum, Sen. Bill Nelson, Sen. George LeMieux and members of the local legislative delegation are expected to attend.

The Northwest Florida Beaches Airport will have a 10,000-foot runway and is the first new international airport to open in the nation in 15 years, according to airport officials. The proposed airport faced opposition from some environmentalists who said it was being placed in heart of the biologically diverse Florida Panhandle. To see a map of biodiversity hotspots, click here.

Local officials hope the airport will attract new visitors to the region's white sand beaches and hotels. "As we open new markets to new customers, we think when they find it they will say this is our beach of choice," said Dan Rowe, CEO and president of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.

And they hope the airport, located on 4,000 acres of former St. Joe Co. land, will spur commerce and development on the adjacent company land. The airport will feature Southwest Airlines service with eight nonstop flights to Baltimore/Washington, Houston, Nashville and Orlando. Delta, which already serves the existing airport in Panama City, has 11 nonstop flights daily to Atlanta and Memphis. Crist during a 2009 site visit described the airport as a model for economic development and environmental preservation.

The Clean Water Network of Florida unsuccessfully fought the development permit for the airport, then publicized construction violations issued last year by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Supporters are describing it as one of the first "green" airports. The new facility seeks to be the one of the first LEED-certified airports and could become one of the first "carbon-neutral" airports, according an official fact sheet.

Supporters say the airport will lead to the protection of 41,000 acres as part of the West Bay Sector Plan. That plan also allows 4.4 million square feet of industrial, commercial and retail buildings, 6,300 homes and 900 marina slips.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Photo courtesy of the Panama City Chamber of Commerce. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Panel relaxes pollution requirement for Fenholloway River

View Larger MapThe state Environmental Regulation Commission on Thursday approved a rule allowing the Buckeye Florida pulp mill near Perry to discharge a darker wastewater than previously had been allowed.

The mill, built in 1954, is the largest employer in Taylor County with more than 500 workers. Buckeye also has been the target of environmentalists and their disputes with regulatory agencies because of the mill's historic pollution of the Fenholloway River. Buckeye has proposed building a 15-mile pipeline from the plant to near the mouth of the Fenholloway at the Gulf of Mexico to discharge 41 million gallons per day of treated wastewater.

The dark brown discharge was blamed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection during the 1990s for killing 10 square miles of sea grass in the Gulf. But DEP now says sea grasses have grown back as the company has reduced the darkness of the discharge by half since the early 1990s. The company has spent more than $90 million on plant upgrades to reduce pollution, said Ray Andreu, the plant's manager of environmental and regulatory affairs. He said there is no technology available to further reduce the color of the discharge.

But the Clean Water Network of Florida opposed the rule change, pointing to other pulp mills that have further reduced their color. Linda Young, the group's director, said the proposed pipeline permit would allow the continued pollution of the river and Gulf. But she was cut off by ERC Chairman Don Ross, who said the panel wasn't considering the proposed permit that would allow the pipeline.

"We expected it," Young said after the meeting. "There shouldn't be blatant disregard for what the public brings to this discussion."

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Friday, May 21, 2010

New waterway classification approved despite objections

Many canals and concrete ditches don't need the same level of water quality treatment as natural waterways, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection says.

As a result, the state Environmental Regulation Commission on Thursday approved a rule that would create a new waterway classification for those altered water bodies. But environmental groups opposed the rule change, predicting it will lead to the increased pollution of some altered waterways that many people would consider natural, such as the Apalachicola and Caloosahatchee rivers.

FSA, whose membership mostly is cities and counties, says the change could save local governments billions of dollars in unnecessary cleanup costs. Supporters include the Florida Association of Counties, the Florida League of Cities, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Sugar Cane League.

The state now has five waterway classifications ranging in quality from "Class I" drinking water supplies (potable) to "Class V" industrial, of which there are none now designated. Most waterways are classified as Class III, meaning they must support recreation and healthy fish and wildlife populations, said Jerry Brooks, director of DEP's Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration.

The new "Class III -- limited" designation would apply only to waterways where the existing Class III designation cannot be met -- often because dredging and maintenance create a lack of habitat for aquatic creatures that are sensitive to pollution. Some of them still may be used for fishing.

"We are talking about many waters that I think most people viewing those waters would view them as very healthy water bodies," Brooks told the ERC. "They are going to have very significant fish and wildlife associated with them. They just will not have the pollution sensitive taxa (aquatic life) that drive the water quality criteria associated with Class III."

The reclassification would allow cities and counties to apply for redesignation and alternative pollution limits for nine water quality criteria, including nutrients, dissolved oxygen, biological integrity and transparency. The only water bodies that could be redesignated are those considered "wholly artificial" or those dredged prior to 1975, Brooks said. The reclassification, he said, must not harm downstream water bodies.

Opponents, including the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Clean Water Network of Florida, said portions of the Caloosahatchee River could be reclassified because of a weir and portions of the Apalachicola River could be reclassified because of dredging.

Gary Davis, an attorney representing the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, said the rule is unnecessary because heavily altered waterways are low on DEP's cleanup list. "We don't see the department (now) forcing the regulated community to clean up the impossible," he said.

The rule change, which now goes to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency for approval, was requested by the Florida Stormwater Association nearly a year ago.

To learn more about the stream designation system, go to .

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Process gearing up for nominating new PSC commissioners

Senate President Jeff Atwater on Thursday named Sen. Mike Bennett to chair the Legislature's panel that nominates new members of the Florida Public Service Commission.

Bennett, R-Bradenton, replaces Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs as chairman of the Public Service Commission Nominating Council. Constantine was among 61 people applying for two PSC openings that will occur in June. The council is responsible for interviewing and then recommending finalists for the post to the governor.

The openings resulted from the Senate votes against confirming David E. Klement and Ben A. "Steve" Stevens III. Although opposing senators questioned the qualifications of two commissioners appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist, the votes were viewed by supporters as political payback against the governor and the PSC for opposing utility electricity rate hike requests.

The terms for the two seats would extend through January 2014. The Public Service Nominating Council is scheduled to meet on June 1 to consider the applications.

Atwater said that he has warned all the senators that serve on the nominating council to "abstain" from attending fundraisers or private events that include utilities while legislators are interviewing and evaluating potential PSC members. He said that he "expressed my expectations that the nomination process be conducted in an open, transparent manner; protecting the integrity of the process."

Meanwhile, PSC member Nathan A. Skop has applied for reappointment to his seat. Commission Chairman Nancy Argenziano has said she will seek reappointment but does not expect to be confirmed because she speaks the truth about the influence of utilities over the Legislature. The terms for seats would be from Jan. 2, 2011 through Jan. 1, 2015. Applications are being accepted for this two seats through June 17.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Florida ERC tackles controversial issues today

The Environmental Regulation Commission will take up three controversial proposals when it meets Thursday in Tallahassee. The ERC will consider a proposed Florida Department of Environmental Protection rule to establish a new waterway classification system for determining water quality standards.

The Florida Stormwater Association in 2009 petitioned DEP to create a new classification so that local governments are not required to spend millions of dollars improving water quality in ditches and canals. The Clean Water Network, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Clean Water Action and the Everglades Foundation want the DEP to delay action until the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency establishes numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus.

The commission also will consider a proposed rule that would establish alternative criteria for transparency in the lower Fenholloway River and nearby Gulf of Mexico waters. Buckeye Florida, a pulp mill in Perry that discharges treated industrial wastewater into the Fenholloway River, requested the alternative criteria as allowed under state rules. DEP contends that the proposal would allow for sea grasses in the Gulf of Mexico that died because of the dark discharge from the mill to recover. DEP also says the proposal would have no effect on human health. In a letter sent earlier this month to the ERC, the Clean Water Network contends that the alternative criteria represent a weakening of water quality standards so that Buckeye can build a 15-mile pipeline to discharge its wastewater downstream in the river near the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico.

The ERC also will consider a proposed rule restricting the land application of sewage sludge called "biosolids." Audubon of Florida published a report in 2009 calling on the state to protect water quality by ending the practice of spreading biosolids.

The commission meets at 9 a.m. in the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas Building, 3900 Commonwealth Boulevard. To download the agenda, go to

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

South Florida reps want emergency declaration

A state representative from Miami is asking Gov. Charlie Crist to expand a state of emergency to include Miami-Dade County.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard said Wednesday that tar balls found Monday in Key West had been tested and they were not from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Even so, Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, sent a letter to Crist asking for Miami-Dade County to be included on the state of emergency list because oil is now reaching the Gulf of Mexico loop current.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday that a "very light" oil sheen had reached the loop current. But there was "nothing has changed drastically over the last couple of days" with regard to the oil's proximity to the current, said Charlie Henry, a NOAA scientist, said during a news conference. NOAA said Tuesday that a tendril of oil was nearing the loop current, which could take it to the Straits of Florida in eight to 10 days.

Lopez-Cantera said the Miami-Dade County needs to begin planning for the possible arrival of oil. He said putting oil booms along South Beach "would be sending the wrong message to tourists." But he also said booms could be placed ahead of time in other areas that are less visible to tourists. "I want to start doing that now if necessary," he said. "We have a lot of delicate areas with coastal estuaries and mangroves that I would like to see protected now."

A Crist spokesman said the governor was reviewing his previous state of emergency declaration to consider expanding it to additional counties. Crist on May 4 expanded the area to include 13 Gulf coast counties in addition to five western Panhandle counties that were listed in April. Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, on Tuesday asked the governor to include Monroe County in his disaster declaration.

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PSC struggles with rules to prevent pressuring staff

PSC Chairman Nancy Argenziano, center, discusses proposed procedures with Commissioner Nathan A. Skop while Commissioner Lisa Polak Edgar listens.

Public Service Commission members wrestled Tuesday over draft proposed administrative procedures that are aimed at preventing commissioners from unduly pressuring agency staff. Bills to reform the PSC failed to pass the Legislature during the session that ended April 30.

A proposed House committee bill, HB 7209, would have removed the regulatory staff from the agency and required commissioners and the remaining staff to perform their duties without "undue influence" from anyone. PSC Commissioner Lisa Polak Edgar earlier this month sent a letter to PSC Executive Director Tim Devlin asking him to review how to protect commission staff "from undue pressure, influence and worry."

The draft proposed procedures would prohibit commissioners from demanding staff, other than commissioners' aides, from taking a position or pursuing a particular course of action. Violations would be referred by the agency executive director, inspector general and general counsel to the Florida Commission on Ethics.

PSC Chairwoman Nancy Argenziano told Edgar that if she has examples of commissioners pressuring staff, "I'd like you to start and maybe name them. Because if you are going to cast aspersions, I want my name cleared." Edgar said she was seeking to clarify what boundaries should exist between commissioners and staff. "So discussions of examples and aspersions or insinuations, I want to be very clear, is not at all what I was asking for or doing or what I want to engage in," Edgar said.

Argenziano and Commissioner Nathan A. Skop said they had concerns that the rules could prevent commissioners in the future from asking questions or operating independently. And Skop said House members told him that they had heard about undue pressure a "culture of fear." Skop said, "I don't think anybody wants to cast aspersions but aspersions are being cast on this issue."

No action was taken. The draft procedures along with a draft code of conduct to define prohibited "ex parte" communications will be considered again at a future commission meeting.

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Federal fishing area closure nearly doubles in size

A federal closed area to fishing was nearly doubled in size Tuesday to extend far to the east towards Florida. But the area remained about 50 miles from its closest point on the Florida Panhandle near the Alabama state line.

The movement of some oil towards the Gulf loop current led National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials to extend the closed area east about 120 miles to a line extending about 175 miles south of Apalachicola and 140 miles west of St. Petersburg.

The closed area increased from 24,241 square miles to 45,728 square miles, which is about the size of Pennsylvania. That closed area represents about 19 percent of the federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico.

Charter boat captain Bob Zales of Panama City said the closure should have little effect on most recreational anglers, though he said commercial fishermen who fish for tuna and billfish will be affected. "Very few recreational fishermen get out that far to fish," he said.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Oil spill's wildlife effects could be felt for years, feds say

A pelican swims on May 13 in a make-shift pool after being cleaned of oil at the Clean Gulf Associates Mobile Wildlife Rehabilitation Station on Fort Jackson in Plaquemine, La..

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico appears to be taking a toll on wildlife but the effects of the disaster could linger for years, federal wildlife officials said Tuesday.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said 162 stranded sea turtles have been recovered from Louisiana through the Florida Panhandle since April 30. That's significantly higher than in the past, though there has been no confirmation yet that they were killed by the oil, said Steve Murawski of the NOAA Fisheries Service.

In addition, 12 dolphins have been found dead along with 23 seabirds. Twelve birds have been treated for oil and four have been released into the wild.

But more are risk, said Roger Helm, chief of the Division of Environmental Quality at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "If this stuff comes on shore, a lot of birds are going to die," he said.

Fish and wildlife experts are concerned that nesting loggerhead, Kemp's ridley and leatherback sea turtles will be affected as they move through the area. Other creatures that could be affected include sea turtles and other creatures living in floating sargassum algal communities along with deep sea corals and floating fish larvae and eggs.

"This spill is significant," said Rowan W. Gould, acting director of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "In all likelihood it will affect fish and wildlife resources in the Gulf and maybe across the North American continent for years if not for decades."

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class(SW) Jeffery Tilghman Williams. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Florida groups want solar, renewable standard raised in special session

The Florida Renewable Energy Producers Association is asking Gov. Charlie Crist to support a constitutional amendment to establish a 20-percent renewable energy requirement for Florida utilities.

Crist has said he will call a special session soon to consider a constitutional amendment to ban oil drilling and other measures to promote renewable energy in response to the ongoing gulf oil spill. The Florida Renewable Energy Producers Association represents developers and operators of renewable energy facilities and independent power marketers.

The group wants Crist to ask the Legislature to put on the fall election ballot a constitutional amendment to require utilities to produce at least 20-percent of their electricity by 2020, said Michael Dobson, the association's president. The group also wants a ballot measure to establish a public benefits fund to pay for renewable energy projects.

Crist in 2007 proposed such a 20-percent renewable energy requirement called a "renewable portfolio standard." In 2009, the Senate approved a bill to establish a 15-percent renewable energy requirement along with an additional 5 percent nuclear as part of a "clean energy" standard. But the House refused to take up the bill.

This year, SB 596 by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, would have established the same clean energy standard. But the bill was never heard by a committee. "As far as I'm concerned that is evidence the will of the Legislature is clearly not there to get it done," Dobson said. "I think the only way we are going to be able to get these policies done is to go to citizens."

Proposed amendments to House energy bills requiring 5-percent renewable energy by 2020 were rejected in committee and floor votes. Republican leaders raised concerns about the impact on utility rates.

FREPA will collect petition signatures to place the measure on the ballot in 2012 if it is not taken up in the special session, Dobson said.

Meanwhile, the 527 group Floridians for Excellence has begun airing television ads calling for Crist to introduce legislation in a special session to renew the state's solar energy rebate program. That program, which has an estimated $25 million in unpaid rebate applications, is scheduled to expire June 30. Crist has hinted that he could take up the RPS proposal or the solar rebate program in a special session.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Florida DCA's Pelham says bill would tie agencies' hands

Florida Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham on Friday joined critics in saying that a House bill now before the governor would severely hamper state agency rule-making.

HB 1565 would require agencies to receive approval by the Legislature for proposed rules that would cost businesses or affect economic growth in excess of $1 million. The bill passed the House and Senate without opposition and had support from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida League of Cities. Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary and sponsor of HB 1565, said the bill would protect people and small business owners. But environmental groups and the St. Johns River Water Management District staff are asking Gov. Charlie Crist to veto the measure.

Pelham said Friday that the bill represents a violation of the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. He said the bill could prevent DCA from adopting rules on growth that would limit greenhouse gas emissions as required by a 2008 state law. The bill also could prevent DCA from adopting a rule requiring that cities and counties demonstrate the need for new development based on population growth estimates.

"We have great concerns about it," Pelham said of the bill. "It would greatly complicate the rule-making process, make it a lot longer more expensive and would really tie the hands of agencies in fulfilling their responsibilities to protect the public interest."

The Florida League of Cities said the bill would help prevent unfunded mandates on local government from state agencies. The Florida Chamber of Commerce contends that the bill could increase transparency and public participation in the rule-making process, said Adam Babington, the chamber's director of governmental affairs.

But Pelham said the bill could create more regulatory uncertainty for businesses and cause some of them to spend more to hire experts to challenge estimated cost statements that would be required by agencies issuing rules. And Pelham, an attorney, said there is case law to suggest that the bill is an unconstitutional infringement on the separation of powers. "If the Legislature doesn't like the way the agency has written the rules, it can amend the statute," Pelham said.

Audubon of Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida and the St. Johns Riverkeeper have asked Crist to veto the bill. Pelham said his role is to point out the problems with the bill, not tell the governor whether to veto it. Crist has until May 28 to take action.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Friday, May 14, 2010

Tar balls found on Escambia County beach

Five tar balls have been found on Perdido Key in Escambia County, representing possibly the first oil from the massive ongoing spill to reach Florida waters, the U. S. Coast Guard reported on Friday.

The five tar balls, each about a half-inch in diameter, were collected Thursday over a 3.5 mile stretch of shoreline, said Dawn Patience, a spokeswoman for the Joint Information Center in Mobile, Ala. She said she had no other information about the tar balls or whether they were being tested to determine whether they came from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Louisiana coast.

The outer edge of the spill site appeared to be about 40 miles from Florida's western tip at Perdido Key, according to a NOAA trajectory map. Ocean models showed a west to southwest flow of oil away from Florida.

At the spill site Friday, BP was continuing to work on a pair of options to try to stop the ongoing oil leak. BP was attempting to insert a pipe into the well to funnel the oil to ships at the surface. If that didn't work, there would be second attempt to use a containment device capture oil from the leaking well in water 5,000 feet deep.

The New York Times and National Public Radio reported that the spill could be 10 times larger than the 210,000 gallons per day as stated by the Coast Guard. The response to the spill does not depend on the estimates, Rear Admiral Mary Landry of the Coast Guard told reporters on Friday. A Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman referred questions to the Coast Guard and BP unified command.

Other Florida officials on Friday were continuing to assure the nation that Florida beaches were free of oil and that its seafood is safe to eat. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will provide the state with additional funding to increase monitoring of fishing to possibly extend the red snapper fishing season, which starts June 1 and ends June 24. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has called on the federal government to open snapper season early in response to the spill.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is holding an emergency meeting May 19 in St. Pete Beach to receive information about the oil spill response. Some charter boat captains in Panama City were raising concerns that boats and workers from out of state rather than locals were being used by BP in response to prepare for the spill, Capt. Bob Zales told state wildlife officials during a conference call. "There should be some effort to bring local folks into this operation," Zales said. He is president of Panama City Boatman Association and the National Association of Charter Boat Operators.

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Bill would require Legislature approval of agency rules

Environmental groups and the St. Johns River Water Management District are calling on Gov. Charlie Crist to veto HB 1565, which he received Thursday from the Legislature.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, requires agencies to conduct an economic analysis of proposed rules that could cost businesses more than $200,000 in the first year after adoption, according to a House committee staff analysis. If the analysis shows that the rule could affect economic growth in excess of $1 million or affect private-sector investment, productivity or innovation or competition with other states, then the rule must be submitted to the Legislature for approval.

"This is about protecting people and small business owners," Dorworth said. "The idea it is somehow bad for government to justify rules in excess of $1 million is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous." The bill received support from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties.

But the St. Johns River Water Management District says the bill would subject most new water-protection rules to approval by the Legislature. Regulated interests would no longer have to provide evidence in a rule challenge, rather they could lobby against the bill in the Legislature. The bill would "frustrate executive branch operation if the Legislature perpetually fails to act on the rules session after session," according to a district staff analysis.

Audubon of Florida, 1000 Friends of Florida and the St. Johns Riverkeeper have joined the water-management district staff in requesting a veto. Audubon said the bill could thwart Everglades restoration while 1000 Friends said it could prevent the Department of Community Affairs from adopting a development rules stemming from a 2008 addressing climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.

A DCA spokesman said he could not immediately comment on the bill. A Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman said DEP has concerns about the bill but has not made a formal recommendation to the governor.

Dorworth said no one spoke in opposition to the bill in the Legislature and there were no votes against it in committees or on the House and Senate floor. The governor has until May 28 to sign or veto the bill.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be requested at .)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

EPA defends use of chemical dispersants against oil

Federal officials on Wednesday defended the use of chemical dispersants to battle the huge oil spill off the Louisiana coast.

The spill from the Deepwater Horizon remained more than 50 miles west of the tip of the Florida Panhandle as more oil was washing ashore in Louisiana. BP and the U. S. Coast Guard have used more than 387,000 gallons of dispersants. The surface slick is being sprayed with dispersants from aircraft and the chemicals also have been pumped into the oil leaking from a well one mile deep on the Gulf floor.

The National Academy of Sciences raised concerns about the effects of dispersants on aquatic life in a 2005 report. Felicia Coleman, director of Florida State University's Coastal and Marine Laboratory, said earlier this week that using the dispersants simply may be trading the visible harm of oil onshore for a less visible harm offshore. She said using the dispersants offshore could harm grouper larvae but she added that the oil slick may also harm vital sea grass meadows as it moves inshore.

On Wednesday, U. S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said during a conference call with reporters that the agency is monitoring the use of dispersants. But she acknowledged that the volume being used in the oil spill response also reflects "uncharted waters." BP is required to test the effectiveness of underwater use of dispersants before allowing continued use, she said.

"We absolutely must be aggressive in tackling this spill," Jackson said. "And at the same time we will take absolute care to make sure any efforts we take are not just substituting one challenge for another."

Dana Tulis, acting director of the EPA Office of Emergency Management, said the dispersants cause the oil to degrade more quickly than it would otherwise. "It's not a case where we are simply transferring oil from the surface to the sea floor," she said.

On Tuesday, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said there is no authorized use now of the dispersants in state waters, which extend to 10.3 miles from the shore, because of concerns about toxicity. He said the dispersants will use their effectiveness as the oil moves closer to Florida from the spill site more than 100 miles away. "The likelihood of using dispersants near Florida is small," Sole said.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be requested at .)

BP asked to pay for Florida advertising campaign

Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday sent a letter to BP asking for it to pay nearly $35 million for a marketing campaign to attract visitors to Florida's beaches and coastal waters.

BP is a responsible party under federal law for the ongoing oil spill occurring off Louisiana that threatens Florida's coastline. After meeting with the Visit Florida board of directors on Wednesday, Crist sent a letter to BP America President Lamar McKay requesting that the company pay for a Visit Florida campaign to counter the widespread images of millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. Tourism generated $65 billion in direct economic impact to Florida, Crist said.

"I visited several of our coastal Panhandle communities this weekend, and our sugar sand beaches and crystal clear waters are breathtaking," he said. "Unfortunately, because of the constant images of millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, potential visitors are receiving negative and false information. This spill was not of Florida's making, and therefore, we need your urgent assistance to correct the record."

An emergency campaign would cost $24.75 million through September and another $10 million would be needed in marketing support for counties through September, the governor said. There was no immediate response to a request for comment from BP.

When Crist met with representatives of Visit Florida, he was told there was not enough money available to announce that Florida beaches are fine. The tourism marketing agency was talking about spending $2.5 million but Crist acknowledged that amount would not go far enough to get the word out. He said that he thought that during a special session dedicated to oil drilling that maybe the state could allocate additional money.

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Florida ag commissioner seeks support against threatened bills

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson on Wednesday urged Gov. Charlie Crist to sign two bills, HB 981 and HB 7103.

Bronson said the bills are needed to support agriculture and he'd heard rumors that Crist may veto them but wasn't sure if the rumors were true. "I'm not sure yet either," Crist said. "Some of that bubbles up before I get to weigh in."

HB 981 is intended to reverse a circuit court judge's ruling in Bradford County that Rayonier property that was divided and sold no longer qualified for agricultural tax exemptions. The Property Appraisers Association of Florida says the bill would allow tax breaks for "sham" agricultural operations and has asked Crist to veto it. Bronson said the bill also allows the state to issue federal permits for spraying against mosquitos and non-native aquatic plants. And he said it allows a tax collected on citrus products to be used to fight the "black spot" citrus disease.

HB 7103 would prevent counties from regulating agriculture if the agricultural activity already is regulated by the state, Bronson said. And it requires developers to acknowledge they are building next to agricultural lands in an attempt to keep new homeowners from trying to shut it down. The Florida Association of Counties is opposed to the bill but has not requested a veto.

"Those are some very important issues that are going to affect tens of thousands of jobs in agricultural production in this state," Bronson said.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be requested at .)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Crist hints at saving cash-strapped solar rebate program

Florida's solar energy rebate program is broke and due to expire, but Gov. Charlie Crist indicated Tuesday he would consider helping the program during a special session.

The state established the solar rebate program in 2007 to provide up to $20,000 for home solar panels and up to $500 for solar water heaters. The Legislature last year provided no money for the program, but the state received $14.4 in federal stimulus dollars that went to the solar rebates. But that money was quickly used up on applications submitted the prior year. Crist requested $10 million for the rebate program in 2010-11 but the Legislature provided no money.

Last week, there were 9,565 rebate applications pending in excess of $25 million, according to the Governor's Energy Office. The program is scheduled to expire without legislative reauthorization by June 30. HB 1267, which would have extended the program, died without being heard by committees in the House.

Crist said Tuesday that a special session of the Legislature is needed to consider a constitutional amendment banning oil drilling and ways to foster renewable energy, which he said includes wind, solar, nuclear energy and natural gas. And he indicated that the solar rebate program could be looked at as well. "That's another part of the beauty of a special session that deals with that issue," he said. "We may be able to get additional help for those going solar."

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

True to his word, Bronson votes 'no' on Florida land purchases

The governor and Cabinet on Tuesday approved a pair of state conservation land purchases with Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson voting in opposition.

Bronson, who is leaving office later this year because of term limits, said in March he would vote against any additional land purchases other than conservation easements, which involve paying landowners not to develop their property.

Bronson said conservation easements are preferable to the state buying land because landowners continue paying taxes and producing agricultural products. Supporters of the state's purchase program say conservation easements are good in some cases but outright purchases also are needed also to conserve land and provide public access.

On Tuesday, Bronson voted to pay $2.1 million to Fred and Jodie Hires for a conservation easement on 1,369 acres near Gothe State Forest in Levy County. But he voted against the purchase of a 106-acre addition to Etoniah Creek State Forest in Putnam Counthy and against adding 552 acres to Torreya State Park in Gadsden and Liberty Counties.

"I'm going to vote 'no' on buying any more state land when there are easement opportunities available," Bronson said Tuesday. The Cabinet voted 3-1 to approve both additions.

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Florida, counties burning through BP cash, Sole says

Florida is quickly spending the $25 million it received last week from BP for the oil spill response and is expected to ask for more soon, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole told the Cabinet Tuesday.

BP is the legal "responsible party" under federal law, which means the company will have to pay for protecting Florida's shore and cleaning up the oil that reaches it. Winds were continuing Tuesday to push the slick towards the northwest away from Florida, but choppy waters were hampering cleanup efforts as the leak from an oil well on the sea floor continued.

DEP is working with counties to develop strategies for deploying boom in an attempt prevent oil from reaching the shoreline, Sole said. "My expectation is this money will go quickly," he said. "We are in a process of working with the counties to get an understanding -- and we expect to get that today -- (of) how much this is costing them to respond to the oil spill."

Escambia County so far has spent $1.4 million on the response but could spend $13 million over the next 30 days, Kelly Cooke, communications coordinator for Escambia County, told the Florida Tribune on Tuesday.

Sole told the Cabinet meeting he expects to return to BP soon to say how much more money the state needs. Some of the cost, he said, will depend on how much oil eventually reaches Florida's shore and what form it is in. A "tarball brigade" of workers could be used if only small amounts reach the shore, he said, but heavy equipment may be needed if petroleum washes

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)ashore.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Crist to call special session for drilling, renewable energy

Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday he will call a special session of the Legislature to consider placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot to ban oil drilling.

 "I think it's important that we go ahead and have a special session," Crist told reporters before a Cabinet meeting. "I think after my conversation with Senate President (Jeff) Atwater yesterday, I'm encouraged the Legislature is of a mind to do so as well -- to put a constitutional amendment regarding the ban on oil drilling off Florida's coast."

  Crist also said he would want to get some of the "best minds" together to lay out a plan before the special session to also deal with renewable energy. The Legislature during the last session did not pass a bill that was intended to encourage the use of renewable energy by utilities.

  "Probably the session would be in a couple of weeks," Crist said. "But I want to talk about wind, nuclear, solar, gas -- natural gas -- other alternative means to provide energy to our people in the wake of what's happened in the Gulf."

  Asked why he wants an amendment ban drilling when some say the state constitution has too much in it now, Crist replied, "There is no stronger place to put it."

 "You know, the Constitution is the bedrock of our democracy and our governance in Florida as well as our country. And I think that it's appropriate for the people to make this call."

He said the session likely would not deal with anti-corruption measures because he was waiting on recommendations from a grand jury. 

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Monday, May 10, 2010

Use of chemical dispersants against oil spill questioned


Officials battling an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico can't claim victory simply by keeping the oil offshore with the use of chemicals, a Florida State University researcher said Monday.

BP says 315,000 gallons of chemical dispersants have been used since the oil spill began April 21 off the Louisiana coast. The Coast Guard says it prefers to battle the oil offshore to prevent ecological damage caused by having it wash ashore.

But Felicia Coleman, director of the FSU Coastal and Marine Laboratory in St. Teresa, told the Florida Tribune that those chemicals and the dispersed oil could harm a variety of species, including gag grouper, and their offshore habitats. A National Academy of Sciences report in 2005 said the dispersants can kill fish eggs and that dispersed oil in Oregon had accumulated in mussels, according to the publication ProPublica.

FSU's Coleman said corals may be relatively unaffected by a slick that passes over them but may be harmed by dispersed oil and chemical dispersants. Likewise, gag grouper could be affected as they move from being eggs on the sea bottom far offshore with chemical dispersants "raining down on them" to their larval stage in the water column. Or if the oil slick isn't broken up, those gag grouper could be affected as juvenile fish growing to maturity in the sea grass meadows closer to shore.

Coleman said the impact on the environment is being changed -- not eliminated -- with the use of chemical dispersants to keep the oil offshore. "You've traded being able to view it in a coastal environment with not seeing it in the offshore," she said. "Does that make it less damaging ecologically? I doubt it. It just makes it less visible."

Jack Rudloe, a manager of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Panacea, told an oil spill response meeting in Franklin County on Monday that the chemical dispersants should not be used. "I would rather deal with the thickest blob of the nastiest oil there is than to see the oil broken into micro-particles," he said.

Chris Doolin, representing the Small County Coalition of Florida, said he wasn't sure where he stood on the use of the chemical dispersants but he added, " I don't want it (oil) on my beach in St. Teresa."

Andrew Jubal Smith, executive director of the Apalachicola Riverkeeper group, said the Waterkeeper Alliance was opposed to chemical dispersants. BP officials could not be reached for comment.

(U.S. Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. Adrian Cadiz. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Author says oil slick only the visible tip of problem

An environmental author told an environmental summit in Tallahassee Thursday that the spreading oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico is only the most visible aspect of the nation's dependence on fossil fuels.

Bill McKibben is a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, founder of and author of "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future." He was the keynote speaker at the Leon County Sustainable Communities Summit.

"It's a terrible, terrible tragedy what's underway," he said, speaking from Massachusetts via the Internet to reduce energy use from traveling to Florida. "What's just as sad is it's only the visible tip of what is going on every day as we continue to burn fossil fuel on this planet." He also said that building codes in Florida should require the installation of solar panels on new homes to take advantage of the abundant sunshine.

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, told McKibben that the Florida Legislature passed no renewable energy bills last year and only a "small" bill this year involving local government financing for home energy projects. House Republicans described the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) bill as an innovative approach to increasing renewable energy.

"What do we do with some of my colleagues who talk about price, price, price all of the time without really talking about the cost (to society of coal and oil)?" she asked. McKibben responded that Colorado had taken a leadership position by adopting a 30-percent renewable energy requirement on utilities by 2020.

The House this year rejected bill amendments to require a 5-percent renewable energy by 2020 and has refused Gov. Charlie Crist's call for a 20-percent renewable-energy requirement by 2020. Rehwinkel Vasilinda's Democratic primary opponent, Rick Minor, on Thursday repeated his criticism of her for voting for a bill in 2009 to allow oil drilling in the Gulf within three miles of the coast.

(Story content provided by the Current, produced by The Florida Tribune for Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Oil washes ashore in La. as Florida waits

The oil spill remained far offshore from Florida Thursday though some began washing ashore in Louisiana, coating beaches, marshes and sea birds with greasy oil.

The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded on April 21 and sank the following day, causing about 200,000 gallons of oil a day to gush from a well under 5,000 feet of water. Gov. Charlie Crist has declared a state of emergency for 18 coastal counties from Pensacola to Sarasota.

The spill was not expected to reach shore in Florida within 72 hours, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. A NOAA map showed a portion of the spill extending about as far east as the Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties line about 30 miles from the coast.

BP on Thursday was lowering a containment chamber over the well to perhaps stop the leak as early as Monday. But BP officials and the Coast Guard have cautioned against raised hopes because of the complexity of the work in water nearly a mile deep.

Patches of greasy emulsified oil began washing ashore in the Chandeleur Islands of the Breton National Wildlife Refuge near the mouth of the Mississippi River. More oil is expected to wash ashore there in the coming days, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives said.

About 24 miles of oil containment boom have been placed along the coast near Pensacola and another eight miles has been deployed near Panama City, according to DEP.

Staff from the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission and University of South Florida faculty are aboard a research vessel that left Wednesday from St. Petersburg to monitor microscopic plankton and fish larvae to measure later the harm that may be caused by the oil spill.

About 70 FWC staff are involved in preparations for the spill but no affected wildlife have been found off Florida's coast, the agency said in a statement issued Thursday.

"We want to assure the public that good plans are in place for the recovery and rehabilitation of all wildlife," FWC Chairman Rodney Barreto said.

(Story content provided by the Current, produced by The Florida Tribune for Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Mild weather keeps oil offshore

A combination of mild weather and a favorable current could keep the Deepwater Horizon oil spill from reaching the state's beaches for at least three to five days, state officials said on Wednesday.

"Mother Nature has played in our favor so far,'' said State Meterologist Amy Godsey.

Godsey explained that winds right now are blowing out of the north and aren't expected to change until the end of the week. She said there is a slight current that could push the massive oil spill toward Louisiana marshes.

But state officials also pointed out that the loop current - which could carry the spill down around the southern tip of Florida - also remains 200-250 miles away as well.

David Halstead, the state's emergency management director, even said that state officials could be still waiting for the spill to finally come ashore early next week.

The U. S. Coast Guard on Wednesday opened an incident command center in St. Petersburg and has begun monitoring the spill from a Coast Guard facility in Key West, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Meanwhile, BP was moving ahead with plans to deploy a building-size containment vessel over the gushing oil well over the weekend and it could stop the leak by Monday, said Doug Suttles, BP's chief operating officer. A ship carrying the containment structure was sailing towards the site and should reach it later Wednesday.

The calm weather Wednesday allowed BP to set fires to burn off some oil from the sea surface, said Charlie Henry, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist.

Suttles said there was no confirmed oil onshore. He said the company is tracking only two oil sheens along islands along the coast of Louisiana.

Regarding the containment structure, Suttles and Coast Guard Rear Admiral Mary Landry, the incident commander, cautioned against having high hopes for the technology, which has never been used in waters nearly a mile deep.

"This has to be done very precisely at a depth of 5,000 feet," Suttles said. "It is a very complex task."

"This hasn't been done before," Suttles said. "It is very complex. It will likely have challenges along the way."

The company also suspended the use of oil dispersant chemicals at the broken well near the sea floor as part of a planned review, Suttles said. Some marine scientists have raised concerns about the chemicals harming larval sea life.

Landry declined to estimate the size of the spill because she said it is "dynamic every day."
(Story content provided by the Current, produced by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)