Thursday, September 30, 2010

Cleanup of some oiled Florida beaches may cause more harm

Federal officials are beginning to leave alone some beaches that still have oil in sand below the surface because further cleanup could cause more environmental harm, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said Wednesday.

The explosion and sinking of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April led to oil washing ashore on beaches along the western Panhandle in June and July.

Federal officials are gradually ending their cleanup operations at some Panhandle beaches. But they plan to continue monitoring the Panhandle coast and will begin a new shoreline assessment in 2011, said Liz Jones, NOAA's scientific support coordinator.

"To be clear, achieving this stage doesn't mean we are reaching an end point," she said. "It just means that we fully expect, during the coming winter, storms may uncover additional subsurface oil that can be cleaned up as it appears on the shore."

Photos taken June 24-27 in Escambia County, from a University of South Florida research report.

While oil stopped gushing from the well off Louisiana on July 15, scientists say some oil that washed ashore during the summer remains below the sand in Florida beaches along the western Panhandle.

NOAA representatives told reporters they dug more than 2,000 holes in Escambia County looking for oil beneath the surface. Oil has not been found below the surface east of Okaloosa County, a BP contractor said.

The federal agency has developed three categories of beaches -- residential amenity, non-residential and special management -- to determine the extent of the cleanup, said Jacqui Michel, lead NOAA scientist for shoreline cleanup and assessment operations.

At residential amenity beaches such as Pensacola Beach, Fort Walton Beach and Destin, there is an effort to remove all oil on the surface or buried in the sand, Michel said. Recreational state park beaches also fall into that category.

In nonresidential areas that have less public use, such as Eglin and Tyndall Air Force bases, the agency will not be as aggressive, Michel said.

The cleanup guideline, she said, for nonresidential and "special management" beaches is less than 1 percent visible oil and no tar balls or tar patties over certain sizes, she said.

At those nonresidential beaches, minor amounts of oil beneath the surface will not be dug up, Michel said.

The "special management" beaches include national parks and state beach preserves. Park managers are concerned that an aggressive cleanup could affect the animals that live on the beach.

"We are going to be less aggressive in removing the subsurface oil on these beaches because that really does disturb the habitat," Michel said.

A BP contractor said a breakdown of the miles of Florida beaches in each of the three categories was not available.

(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, September 28, 2010

Florida Cabinet delays Big Cypress land transfer

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The Florida Cabinet on Tuesday delayed action on a proposed transfer of 29,412 acres in Big Cypress National Preserve to the federal government after state Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson raised concerns about management of the land.

Big Cypress National Preserve is part of the Everglades and covers 729,000 acres in southwest Florida. After Congress established the initial preserve of 540,000 acres in 1974, the state agreed to donate state-owned lands within Big Cypress to the National Park Service. An additional 179,000 acres were added in 1988, including more than 29,000 acres of state land.

But Bronson said the Cabinet should wait until preserve officials complete a management plan for the 179,000 acres, including the state-owned property.

Bronson said he's concerned that the additional property will be designated as a "wilderness." He said that means mechanical equipment would not be allowed, preventing adequate control of wildfires and removal of exotic plant species. That would harm surrounding private land, he said.

"Non-native invasive species are killing our environment," Bronson said. "They are absolutely destroying native species, and those have to be put under control as best as they can before we lose this whole fight."

The state is working closely with the agency and must approve the transfer before an environmental site assessment for the property expires in December, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mimi Drew said.

"We are quite anxious," she said. "It is a great environmental project. It is a great project that unites all of the agencies."

Bronson also raised concerns about whether hunting will be allowed within the addition. He said he couldn't vote on the transfer until he has seen a final management plan.

"I think what the commissioner has asked is fairly reasonable," Attorney General Bill McCollum said.

Representatives of The Nature Conservancy and Audubon of Florida urged the Cabinet to take action. The groups also want the state to use $4 million it will receive from the National State Park Service for the Big Cypress property to buy other land through the Florida Forever program.

"The reality is the management plan and conveyance (transfer) are two different issues," said Julie Wraithmell, wildlife policy coordinator for Audubon of Florida.

McCollum made a motion to delay action at least until National Park Service officials can speak to the Cabinet. "I have no problem bringing it back, but there is no assurance you will get my vote," McCollum told Drew.

A spokesman for Big Cypress National Preserve said the agency will allow for the control of exotic species within the proposed addition. He said preserve officials plan to be present at the next Cabinet meeting to address the issues raised.

"When we have the opportunity to address their questions directly, we feel confident their concerns will be alleviated," said Bob DeGross, preserve spokesman.

(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

Monday, September 27, 2010

Florida to appeal ruling overturning 2009 growth law changes

The Attorney General's Office says it will appeal a judge's ruling on a controversial 2009 growth management law that may have created uncertainty and confusion among local governments and developers.

Chief Circuit Judge Charles Francis on Aug. 26 struck down the changes contained in SB 360, which removed a requirement in state law that developers pay for new roads. The bill, which was passed in 2009, also designated eight of the state's largest counties and 411 cities as "dense urban" areas where state oversight of large developments was removed.

The Attorney General's Office filed a notice in Circuit Court on Friday saying that it was appealing to the 1st District Court of Appeal on behalf of Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul after Francis denied requests for rehearings. A group of cities successfully challenged the law as an "unfunded mandate" prohibited by the state constitution.

SB 360 was one of the most controversial bills in 2009 as it was supported by the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Florida Home Builders Association and faced opposition from environmental groups. Supporters said the bill would encourage urban infill and development while opponents said it would create urban sprawl while removing needed state oversight.

Some cities and counties have successfully adopted new development rules to comply with SB 360 while others were in the process, said Miranda Fitzgerald, an attorney in Orlando with Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed.

The state's decision to appeal stays the implementation of the ruling, the Florida Department of Community Affairs said in a notice posted on its web site Monday. But Fitzgerald said the ruling should cause other cities and counties to wait before moving forward to adopt development rules under SB 360.

"It's confusing and I think everybody's going to be gun-shy," she said. SB 1752 this year protected cities and counties that had received approval of new rules, but Fitzgerald said it's uncertain whether local governments that did not receive approval prior to the Aug. 23 court ruling will be protected.

EDITORS NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the ruling was being appealed on behalf of Gov. Charlie Crist. Although Crist was a defendant in the lawsuit, the ruling is being appealed only on behalf of Atwater and Cretul.

(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

Friday, September 24, 2010

Florida House Republicans hint at special session on energy rebates

A windmill and billboard promoting solar energy were displayed outside the Capitol earlier this year on Earth Day.

House Republican leaders on Thursday said a special session could be held in November -- possibly during the Legislature's organizational session -- to approve using federal economic stimulus money for state energy rebate programs.

Gov. Charlie Crist got into a flap with House and Senate leaders last week when he said in a letter he was disappointed that the Legislative Budget Commission on Sept. 14 did not authorize spending $51 million in federal stimulus dollars on energy rebates. But Republican legislative leaders said they didn't have legal authority to approve the spending because there were no budget appropriations associated with the rebate programs.

On Thursday, the House Majority Office sent a memo to reporters saying that the Legislature could take up the issue in November or during the 2011 regular session.

Crist had requested $13.9 million for an expired solar rebate program and $17.5 million towards heating and air-conditioning system upgrades as part of a rebate program he announced last month. The solar program, which paid up to $20,000 towards half the cost for solar panels on homes, ended in June with a backlog of at least $50 million after the program ran out of money in June 2009. The state spent $14.4 million federal stimulus dollars in 2009 to pay for rebates.

House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, sent Crist a letter saying the governor had announced the $1,500 HVAC program in August knowing that funding had not been approved. He also said the Florida Energy and Climate Commission had been "duping" residents into believing they would receive rebates when money was not available. The governor's office responded that some money was available.

The House Majority Office memo Thursday said Crist had promised money he did not have the legal authority to spend. "This is not an issue of whether or not legislators want to refund Floridians for these rebates that the governor prematurely promised them," the memo said. "The issue is that members of the LBC (Legislative Budget Commission) cannot disregard state law and allow the governor to hand out federal dollars to Floridians in the manner he has requested."

Sterling Ivey, a Crist spokesman, said in response that the governor's office does not believe a special session or full action by the Legislature is needed. The governor's office has said a spending authorization would be legal because the requests are for operating expenses, not a fixed capital expense as the Legislature's Republican leadership claims.

Bruce Kershner, executive director of the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, said he's concerned that the state may face a deadline for spending the federal stimulus dollars before a special session could be held in November. "We have long advocated that we believe those (solar) rebates should be paid," he said.

Rep. Adam Fetterman, D-Port St. Lucie, sent a letter to Crist and Cretul last Thursday saying that he had received numerous complaints from residents about the solar rebate program and he asked the two leaders to set aside their differences and "do what is right for the people of Florida."

(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, September 23, 2010

Feds agree to review wood storks' status at request of Florida home-builders

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will review the "endangered" status of wood storks because of a petition filed by the Florida Home Builders Association.

FHBA says the storks' 26-year-old classification is outdated, but an Audubon of Florida representative says the 12-month review raises concerns and that the future of the species should be closely studied.

Wood storks, which have black and white feathers and black scaly skin on their unfeathered heads, can reach a height of nearly four feet tall. They feed on fish in drying wetlands and build their nests in colonies with other wood storks in trees surrounded by water. They use the same colonies for years unless there are disturbances.

The Florida Home Builders Association requested the review in a 2009 petition. FHBA says restrictions on development, permitting and land and water use to protect wood storks are based on the bird's "outdated" classification as endangered since 1984.

Changes in South Florida water flow led to declines in wood stork populations from 15,000 to 20,000 breeding pairs during the 1930s to a low of 4,500 to 5,700 from 1977 to 1980. The birds appear to have adapted to habitat changes in South Florida by expanding their range into Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. A recovery plan for the species calls for 6,000 nesting pairs, an objective that was exceeded from 2001 to 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.

Wood storks should be removed from the endangered species list altogether, said Reed Hopper, principal attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento, Calif., representing the Florida Home Builders Association.

"Until we get universal recognition this species is improved and has improved, we are not going to see any cutbacks in land regulations," Hopper said.

Species should not be listed if they have healthy populations, said Julie Wraithmell, wildlife policy coordinator for Audubon of Florida. But she said the fate of the birds remains uncertain in South Florida, where water problems remain, and in their new range into the Carolinas.

"We are going to have to look closely at the criteria for down-listing," she said. For more information on the review process, click here.

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

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Backlash brewing against Florida septic tanks requirement

A proposed state septic tank rule and the legislation that sparked the rule are becoming the focus of anti-government critics.

SB 550 during the legislative session requires septic tank owners statewide to receive an inspection at least once every five years. A Florida Department of Health advisory board is reviewing a draft rule on Thursday and DOH has scheduled a series of workshops in October.

The bill was promoted as a measure to protect Florida's springs, which have become choked with weeds and algae as nitrogen in groundwater from a variety of sources has increased. DOH and the septic tank industry say septic tanks should be inspected and pumped out every three to five years to keep them functioning properly. Florida has 2.6 million septic tanks, according to a DOH study completed May 1.

But SB 550 is facing a backlash from critics in the Legislature and some rural counties. Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, and Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach say they will introduce bills in the next legislative session to repeal the measure.

"I just simply think that to mandate every five years for every homeowner with a septic tank to have it inspected is unnecessary and big government," Coley said. She introduced a bill to repeal the mandate during the July special session on oil drilling but the Legislature adjourned without voting on any legislation.

The septic tank inspections by private contractors could cost $100 to $300, according to the Department of Health. Septic tank owners could spend roughly $200 to get the tank pumped out at that time. The rules take effect Jan. 1 with the inspection requirement being phased in over five years.

The Jackson County Commission on July 26 wrote to Gov. Charlie Crist saying that the county wants the law repealed or that the DOH rules be "written in such a way that they will be the least burdensome to the citizens of rural Florida."

The Santa Rosa County Commission on Monday heard complaints from residents about the state requirement. Pace resident Sharon Glass, a local tea party organizer, said she is willing to rent a bus to take residents to Tallahassee to protest, according to the Pensacola News Journal.

The Department of Health is working with its advisory board and contractors to make sure inspection is provided at the lowest cost possible, said Gerald Briggs, the department's bureau chief for onsite sewage programs.

"We are very concerned this will cost property owners and we are making sure the cost is as low as we can make," Briggs said.

The inspection requirement will help the state identify septic tanks that are in violation of regulations and are polluting groundwater, said Sam Averett, president of Averett Septic Tank in Lakeland. He said some homes may require new drain fields installed on mounds of soil at a cost $5,000 to $6,000.

"Every system needs to be maintained," Averett said. "You are affecting some water body somewhere -- everywhere in the state...If the homeowners were maintaining their systems to begin with this would not be an issue -- but they are not."

(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, September 21, 2010

Crist fills two Florida Public Service Commission seats to be vacated by ouster

Gov. Charlie Crist again passed over a state senator and a former Florida Public Service executive director and instead named Eduardo Balbis and Julie I. Brown to the Public Service Commission on Tuesday.

Balbis, 38, is an assistant city attorney in West Palm Beach, and Brown, 35, is associate legal counsel for the First American Corp. They will replace Commission Chairman Nancy Argenziano and Commissioner Nathan A. Skop when their terms expire in January.

Argenziano and Skop were effectively ousted in June when the PSC Nominating Council chose not to include them among the 18 candidates that were being interviewed for their seats. Argenziano and Skop blamed the influence of utilities over the Legislature but Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton and chairman of the PSC Nominating Council, said there was a desire to "clean house" because of infighting among PSC members.

In choosing Balbis and Brown, Crist passed over Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs and former PSC Executive Director Mary Bane. Both names were offered by the council to Crist for the Klement and Stevens seats that the governor filled in July with Art Graham and Rep. Ron Brisé.

Crist said in a statement that Balbis' duties overseeing municipalities and public works in West Palm Beach for the past three years "have already given him the opportunity to demonstrate his commitment to protecting consumers.”

And the governor said Brown had shown that she understands the "fairness and judgement" that must be exercised by PSC members.

“Her past experience ensuring real estate agreements comply with all regulations, as well as reviewing proposed changes to historic properties as a member of a zoning board, have provided her valuable insight into the needs of Florida consumers,” he said.

The next governor could replace the four appointees before they are confirmed by the Senate as Crist did when he took office in 2007. Or they could face the same tough Senate fight that led to Klement and Stevens being ousted.

Bennett said Tuesday he doesn't think that will happen or that the Crist appointees will face any confirmation difficulties.

"I have to tell you the list of people we interviewed this time, practically the entire slate, was probably the best qualified slate of people I have ever seen for the PSC," Bennett said. "There were some tough choices, very tough choices."

National ag groups ask EPA to reconsider water strategy nationally and in Florida

Thirty-six national agriculture groups are asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to delay a proposed action on water quality in Florida and to reconsider its strategy nationally because of the expected costs.

The EPA has proposed numeric limits for nutrients including phosphorus and nitrogen in Florida's rivers, springs and lakes to reduce algae blooms and coastal red tide events. But the federal agency, which is scheduled to adopt a proposal on Oct. 15, faces opposition from state agriculture officials and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection along with utilities, cities and agriculture groups who say the limits will be too costly.

The Sept. 17 letter was sent by national groups including the American Farm Bureau Association, the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture, the National Milk Producers Federation and the U.S. Cattleman's Association. They asked EPA to delay the Oct. 15 action on the proposed criteria for lakes, streams and rivers and to combine it with criteria for Florida estuaries that are expected to be finalized in 2012.

Wastewater utilities in Florida have estimated the cost of complying with the new criteria as $98 billion over 30 years. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has estimated the initial cost for Florida farmers at $3 billion with annual costs at $902 million to $1.6 billion. The EPA has offered the much lower estimate of $130 million plus $11 million per year for agriculture, utilities and other industries.

The criteria being established in Florida will provide a template for EPA to use elsewhere in the nation when setting criteria, according to the letter from the 36 groups. They said the 1998 National Strategy for Development of Regional Nutrient Criteria should be updated to include new science to address concerns about the cost of such regulations.

"The goals of the Clean Water Act must not be set and pursued in isolation from all of the other important goals and priorities of society, including promoting vibrant, strong, job-creating businesses, economically strong communities and productive and valuable use of the land for agricultural and other purposes," the letter said.

An EPA spokesperson said Monday that the agency "is proposing a cost-effective rule to curb the impacts of nutrient pollution that decimates property values and can cause costly illnesses." Earthjustice attorney David Guest, who represents environmental groups in a lawsuit that led to EPA setting a timeline for proposing the criteria in Florida, dismissed what he said are the "phony economic arguments" from the agriculture industry.

"The real reason is when the numbers are set it is going to become so clear that agriculture is destroying the drinking water supplies and the rivers, lakes, and estuaries upon which our whole economy depends; and it is going to become so clear they have to clean up their act," Guest said.

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

Monday, September 20, 2010

Florida agency moves forward with sprawl, climate change rules

The Florida Department of Community Affairs last week continued moving ahead with two important proposed rule changes, but the question is whether DCA will adopt them before a change in administrations.

With Gov. Charlie Crist seeking a U.S. Senate seat, voters will have to choose among Republican Rick Scott, Democrat Alex Sink and several other candidates. The winner will control the statewide planning agency whose future was left in question this year when the Legislature didn't reauthorize DCA as part of its sunset review.

The department held a workshop in Tampa last week on a proposed rule revision that allows the department to determine whether population growth justifies local growth plan changes. DCA says some counties have approved far more residential development than is needed based on future population projections. A Senate committee review in 2008 said the department needed to adopt a rule to use when requiring a population needs analysis for proposed land-use changes.

Also in 2008, the Legislature adopted HB 697, which changed growth management law to include reviews of energy conservation and transportation strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for proposed new developments. A third version of the draft rule was posted to the DCA web site last week.

1000 Friends of Florida President Charles Pattison said he'd like to see the rule changes adopted as soon as possible regardless of whether they happen before a change in administrations. "It should have been done a year ago," he said. "I'm sorry it's taken this much time."

A department spokesman said there is no timetable for development of either rule and it is unknown whether they will be adopted by January when a new governor would take over.

Environmentalist Denise Layne of Lutz said the real question is whether there even will be a Department of Community Affairs to implement the rule if Scott is elected because of his stance against regulations on businesses.

"You can guarantee [DCA Secretary Tom] Pelham will be gone," said Layne, executive director of the Coalition 4 Responsible Growth. "And anyone that brings some reasonableness or guidance in the right direction -- they will be gone."

While Sink says on her website that she supports DCA reauthorization, Scott does not say on his website where he stands on growth management other than saying, "We must be good stewards of our natural resources." A Scott campaign spokesman did not return a phone call and e-mails requesting comment.

(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

Saturday, September 18, 2010

PSC's Skop refuses to withdraw from Florida Power & Light Co. cases

Florida Public Service Commissioner Nathan A. Skop has refused Florida Power & Light's request to remove himself from all cases involving the utility.

Skop's 12-page order filed Thursday is the latest round in a war between Gov. Charlie Crist's reform-minded PSC appointees and the utilities and their allies in the Florida Legislature.

The Legislature in April refused to confirm two Crist appointees and the PSC Nominating Council in June refused to interview Skop and Commission Chairman Nancy Argenziano for reappointment to their seats. Their terms will expire in January.

Skop's order was in response to a Sept. 2 motion filed by FPL. The utility contends Skop, a former employee of FPL's parent company who was laid off in 2002, has become increasingly hostile towards the company and blamed FPL after the nominating council refused to interview him.

In his order, Skop noted that FPL had failed to file the motion prior to the start of the hearing as required. State law should not be "misused to relieve a party's discomfort when the going gets tough during an agency proceeding," Skop wrote.

"Such an untethered, free-roaming threat of recusal would seriously impair the ability of the commission to carry out its important responsibilities in an effective manner by chilling the asking of hard questions," he wrote.

He also noted that FPL said in its motion said that it is the only utility that has been singled out by him. He said that statement created a contradictory position by FPL given that Progress Energy had not made a similar argument during a recent nuclear cost recovery hearing. In media interviews in June, Skop said he was not being reappointed as political payback for the PSC not approving rate hike requests by both FPL and Progress Energy.

Skop's ruling applies to 12 FPL cases pending before the PSC. He previously refused to remove himself from the nuclear cost recovery case. The utility last week appealed Skop's refusal in the nuclear case to the First District Court of Appeal, and Skop provided a response Friday in that case.

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

Friday, September 17, 2010

Florida oil spill research goes on with or without BP money

When the BP oil spill began following a rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, researchers in Florida didn't wait, says State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan.

Instead, they began working to study the extent of the oil spill and the possible effects on the Gulf before they received any money from the giant oil corporation for research, Brogan said.

On May 24, BP committed $500 million to Gulf research and said a panel of scientists would determine how the money would be distributed. But Brogan said he has become concerned about the fate of that money and the $100 million that Gov. Charlie Crist requested in June for research for Florida institutions.

"Some people think it is all about the money" but it's not, Brogan said. "These folks (Florida researchers) stepped up to that plate 48 hours after that oil spill and said, 'What can we do?' -- and knew there was no new money to get it done."

Read more at the Florida Tribune.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Florida governor, legislative leaders spar over energy rebates

A dispute between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Legislature over funding for a solar rebate program escalated Wednesday as House Speaker Larry Cretul suggested the governor's administration had been "duping" applicants into believing they would receive checks.

Crist sent Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater a letter on Tuesday saying he was disappointed the Legislative Budget Commission did not take up his request to provide $13.9 million in federal economic stimulus dollars for the state solar rebate program and $17.5 million for rebates for heating and air conditioning system upgrades. On Tuesday, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the commission could not legally take up the request because the Legislature had chosen not to fund the programs in the 2010-11 budget.

The solar rebate program pays up to $20,000 for solar residential panels on homes and $500 for solar water heaters. The program automatically ended on June 30 after the Legislature did not extend it during the regular session. In July there were more than 15,000 solar rebate applications totaling at least $52 million. The public has until Oct. 30 to submit applications.

On Wednesday, Cretul sent a letter to Crist saying that the governor had announced the $1,500 HVAC program in August knowing that funding had not been provided by the Legislative Budget Commission. He also said the Florida Energy and Climate Commission failed to inform applicants that rebate program had been out of money, "thus duping the citizens of Florida to believe they were eligible for a rebate that was no longer available."

Protestors rally in May at the Florida Capitol in support of the solar rebate program.

"Not only did the FECC fail to notify the public timely or adequately that the funds had run out," Cretul said, "they failed to even post such notice on their website until months after the funds had been exhausted."

There was no immediate response from a Crist spokesman. FECC Chairman James F. Murley said he wasn't aware of the information posted on the website of the Florida Energy Office, which administered the program under the policy direction of the commission.

The dispute was shaping up as partisan by Wednesday afternoon. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, called on Cretul and Atwater to "save" the solar rebate program by approving the governor's requests. Former Rep. Loranne Ausley, a Democratic candidate for state chief financial officer, called on Atwater to approve the federal funding for the rebate programs.

The Florida Solar Energy Industries Association "urges the governor, the speaker and the president of the Senate to work it out," Association Executive Director Bruce Kershner 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

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Florida PSC rejects four utilities' conservation plans

The Florida Public Service Commission on Tuesday rejected energy conservation plans for three utilities after staff said they failed to meet the aggressive annual goals established by the commission. The utilities have 30 days to resubmit the plans.

The PSC set the goals for seven utilities in December under the Florida Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act of 1980. In 2008, the Legislature revised the law to increase the emphasis on reducing power use.

Plans were submitted by the utilities in March. But the PSC on Tuesday rejected the plans from Progress Energy, Tampa Electric Co. and Gulf Power Co. because agency officials said they failed to meet goals each year as required although the utilities said the plans met cumulative goals by 2020.

Some utilities said the cost of meeting the goals each year would be high for customers without any additional benefit over the long-term. Progress Energy says it would cost $6.38 per month in 2011 for the average residential customer compared to $14.08 to meet the PSC annual goals.

"To move to the higher goals we have," Progress Energy attorney John Burnett said, "there is no hanging fruit left for us."

The Florida Industrial Power Users Group said it supports Progress Energy's proposed gradual approach. A large customer now pays about $34,000 per month for the utility's energy programs and that will increase to $306,000 per month if the PSC annual goals must be met, said Vicki Gordon Kaufman, an attorney representing the group.

"I don't think I have to harp much on what that might do to business and industry [and] the creation of jobs we are all trying to move to in this economic downturn," Kaufman said.

But the PSC staff and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which is an intervener in the case, questioned the Progress Energy estimated costs.

"I would like to put all the companies on notice -- staff will look at their expenditures and will be requesting justification before cost recovery is allowed," said Bob Trapp, the PSC's assistant director of regulatory analysis.

PSC Commissioner Art Graham responded: "That sounds like a shot across the bow -- beware." Some PSC members said they understand that action is needed to promote conservation but they also are concerned about increasing utility customers' electric rates.

The commission voted 5-0 to require the utilities to resubmit their plans but also allowed them to include solar programs that previously were excluded.

The commission approved the plan for JEA, formerly the Jacksonville Electric Authority, as submitted and recommended by PSC staff. The commission on Aug. 31 approved a plan submitted by the Orlando Utilities Commission. Action on plans submitted by Florida Power & Light Co. and the Florida Public Utilities Co. are scheduled for review on Sept. 28.

Photo courtesy of NREL and the Community Services Consortium. 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

Florida Growth group shifts stance on constitutional measure

Citing the unwillingness of local governments and the Legislature to address "serious shortcomings" in the state's growth management process, 1000 Friends of Florida on Monday said it "refined" its position on the proposed Amendment 4 from "not supporting" to neutral.

The measure, which is on the Nov. 2 general election ballot, would amend the Florida Constitution to require voter approval of changes to local comprehensive land use plans. Supporters say the measure would wrest control from developers over local growth decisions while opponents say the measure will cost thousands of jobs.

1000 Friends of Florida, the only statewide advocacy group focused primarily on growth management, had said in March it was not supporting Amendment 4. The group said the measure would remove accountability for elected officials, create piecemeal planning, encourage high-priced media campaigns, and cause "planning gridlock" and retaliation by the Legislature.

But in a statement released Monday, the group said it had refined its position and cited state approval of development between January 2007 and June 2010. The Florida Department of Community Affairs has approved an additional 600,000 dwelling units and 1 billion square feet of commercial and office space while there are 300,000 to 400,000 vacant dwelling units available.

“The Board still believes that there are flaws with Amendment 4,” 1000 Friends of Florida Chairman Emeritus Nathaniel Reed said in a statement. “However, we also recognize that the on-the-ground results of the existing growth management system are far from perfect and need major improvement ... Amendment 4 may be the catalyst that is needed to promote positive change.”

“1000 Friends certainly understands the need to create construction and other jobs for Floridians,” 1000 Friends Board President Victoria Tschinkel said in the statement. “But in light of such dramatic existing and proposed overdevelopment, this excess capacity will provide construction and related jobs for Floridians for years to come, whether or not the amendment passes.”

Ryan Houck, a spokesman for the group leading the opposition to Amendment 4, said 1000 Friends' reasons for previously opposing the measure are still valid. He said the measure could send the biotech industry and other potential employers to other states.

"Yes, Amendment 4 would cost tens of thousands of construction jobs," said Houck, executive director of Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy. "It would also cost tens of thousands of jobs in health care, education and tourism."

Wayne Garcia, a spokesman for the Florida Hometown Democracy PAC that put the measure on the ballot, said the 1000 Friends statement echoed what his group has been saying.

"They know how bad the problem is in this state and they think the voters should pay careful attention to it," Garcia said. "This is a very, very sound message indeed."

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

Monday, September 13, 2010

DEP working on criteria after surplus lands controversy

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is developing criteria for agencies to use in deciding whether they want to get rid of conservation land following controversies over the Suwannee River Water Management District's proposals to sell or exchange land.

Florida has the largest conservation land-buying program in the nation with 2.4 million acres having been purchased since 1990. Some legislators say the state has too much land and should sell some of it, but some environmentalists say it's a myth that state has a lot of surplus land.

Since May, the Suwannee River Water Management District has identified nine parcels with 765 acres that it says are surplus and can be sold. But environmental groups objected, saying the district's efforts violate a constitutional provision that allows the Cabinet and other agency governing boards to sell conservation land only if it is no longer needed for conservation purposes.

On Aug. 23, DEP sent a letter to the district saying it had reviewed each of the nine tracts and determined that seven still had conservation values and should be retained. DEP said two parcels totaling 93 acres could be sold.

Joe Flanagan, the district's director of land acquisition and management, said no decision had been made by the agency's governing board on the DEP recommendations. But Charles Lee, Audubon of Florida's director of advocacy, said he hopes the district will heed what he called the "pretty strong advice" from DEP.

In a Sept. 2 letter, DEP's Deborah Poppell said the department is working on criteria that will be presented to the state Acquisition and Restoration Council in October. Lee congratulated the department for working to develop uniform criteria for state land to avoid each agency having its own.

"There isn't any question there is a need for surplus land policy and surplus land evaluation," Lee said. "But it needs to be done on a factual, nonprejudicial basis that relates to the reason why the land was acquired."

"The fact we have some legislators out there who are basically going at this in the way they are is proof of the wisdom of having an amendment in the Constitution that says you can't do it this way," he said. "We knew from the past history of Florida there would always be people who emerge and say, 'Sell it all off.' "

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Two Florida ag commissioner candidates say they are environmental advocates

The two candidates vying for the post of Agriculture Commissioner are both trying to maintain they would help Florida's environment if elected.

But GOP contender Adam Putnam's two-page environmental policy paper released last week prompted a sly retort and denouncement from his Democratic opponent Scott Maddox.

Putnam's paper was thin on specifics. Yet asked whether he had issued an environmental policy paper, Maddox responded that he has been discussing environmental issues during his campaign appearances. Putnam also issued a seven-page paper on water on June 4.

Putnam's environmental paper said that as a congressman, Putnam has been a "tireless advocate" for the environment and led efforts to fund the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan. The paper also says he introduced measures to fight invasive nonnative species in the Everglades and to coordinate federal agencies in responding to the species' threat nationally.

He also said he would "maintain the highest level of stewardship" for state forests and that he would expand the Office of Water Policy at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to assist agriculture in contributing to clean and renewable energy programs.

Maddox, a former Tallahassee mayor, replied that Putnam issuing an environmental policy statement "is like Colonel Sanders coming out for chicken welfare." Maddox cited low ratings by environmental groups for Putnam's votes in Congress including 27 percent by Environment America, 14 percent by the League of Conservation Voters and 0 percent by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund.

"He has consistently voted with industry at the expense of the environment," Maddox told the Florida Tribune. "No one will be fooled by his election year conversion."

When he was a state legisator, Putnam was a chief sponsor of a hotly-contested bill that would have changed the law regarding "sovereign lands" along Florida waterways. Then Attorney General Bob Butterworth at the time called a measure a "land grab." The legislation passed the House in 2000 but died in the Florida Senate.

Tea Party candidate Ira Chester and Thad Hamilton, with no party affiliation, also are on the ballot for agriculture commissioner this year.

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Thursday, September 9, 2010

Renewable energy supporters back Sink for Florida governor, tussle with Scott

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink spoke June 29 to the Clean Energy Congress in Tallahassee. A spokesman for Rick Scott, her Republican opponent for governor, said she was promoting "policies that will only cost more jobs."

Some renewable energy supporters who are backing Democrat Alex Sink for governor said Wednesday that her Republican opponent, Rick Scott, should explain more about his support for nuclear energy.

The Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy (FARE) endorsed Sink on Tuesday, calling her the "clear and easy choice" for the future of renewable energy in Florida. (Read news release by clicking here).

The Scott campaign on Tuesday criticized Sink for her support for renewable energy following a speech she gave in Delray Beach and said she was promoting "policies that will only cost more jobs." Plus a campaign spokesman said Scott will work toward energy independence with "the expansion of nuclear power, the use of alternative fuels and ensure that we can drill safely for oil."

In April, a pair of research studies reported that Florida could generate more than 50,000 jobs by adopting policies that promote renewable energy. (See "Energy efficiency + renewables=jobs, studies say.")

On Wednesday, FARE responded to Scott by saying that he had "attacked" businessmen and farmers who believe that renewable energy is the path to creating more jobs and growing Florida's economy.

Executive director Mike Anthiel said in an e-mail news release that Scott should say how much nuclear energy will cost ratepayers and to acknowledge that he's just advocating for the one or two companies who are capable of building nuclear reactors.

"Widespread renewable energy, at a fraction of the cost of nuclear, will create the tens of thousands of jobs and attract billions of dollars in private investments that the state desperately needs," Anthiel said. There was no response from the Scott campaign.

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Wednesday, September 8, 2010

State, feds agree to extend red snapper season because of oil spill

Florida has joined federal authorities in extending the length of the red snapper fishing season in the Gulf of Mexico, partially addressing a contentious issue from earlier this year.

“This is just what the doctor ordered and couldn’t have come at a better time to give a much-needed boost to our Gulf fishing communities that have had a challenging summer, to say the least, because of the Gulf oil spill,” Rodney Barreto, chairman of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said in a written statement Thursday.

Recreational anglers and politicians protested earlier this year when the Gulf of Mexico Marine Fisheries Management Council reduced the length of the red snapper season to 54 days in June and July from 75 days in 2009. Federal officials said at the time that the shorter season was needed because recreational anglers had exceeded their allocation in the past.

But the BP oil spill led to the closing of some state waters and much of the federal waters off the Panhandle to fishing this summer. An estimated 2.3 million pounds of snapper remained uncaught because of the lack of fishing, Mark Robson of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said earlier this week.

Snapper season will be extended to Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from Oct. 1 to Nov. 22. Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, suggested that to attract visitors to the Panhandle, the state also should extended the free fishing weekends during which fishing licenses are not required.

"I think it's just one other way we can try to put a carrot out there," Patronis said during a state Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force meeting on Wednesday. Robson said the suggestion was a good one and would be discussed by agency officials.

On Friday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration opened more than 3,000 square miles of federal waters off the Panhandle to fishing. That means the closest closed areas now are about 75 miles off of Cape San Blas or 40 miles off the Alabama coast at the Florida state line.

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Supporters of growth measure go after Florida Chamber

Supporters of Amendment 4 say the Florida Chamber of Commerce, a major opponent of the proposed growth management measure, is encouraging employers to pressure their workers to join the opposition.

Amendment 4 would require voter approval of changes to local comprehensive land use plans which say where development can occur. Supporters say the measure is needed to remove control of local growth decisions from the developers and their allies.

But opponents say the measure would cost jobs and kill the economy. Supporters of the "Vote no on 4" campaign include more than 100 cities, local chambers of commerce and economic development councils, businesses, trade associations and unions.

Lesley Blackner, a Palm Beach County attorney and founder of the Florida Hometown Democracy Inc. PAC that helped put the measure on the ballot, said the Aug. 25 e-mail from Florida Chamber Vice President Adam Babington revealed the effort to pressure workers to join in opposing Amendment 4.

In an e-mail to other opponents, Babington wrote that the "Vote No on 4" campaign will be leading an e-mail registration drive of advocates opposing Amendment 4. Groups and businesses can help by providing a "detailed list of your interested employees, organization members, friends and families."

"This is a recipe for coercion on the workplace," Blackner wrote in a press statement Wednesday. "It is a full-court press that no Florida worker trying to keep his or her job will be able to resist and make fully informed decisions."

She added that such politicking would be against the law in public agencies. And she asked that any employees who feel wrongly pressured to report any wrongdoing at the Florida Hometown Democracy website.

Babington denied there was any coercion represented by his e-mail. He said workers in industries that will be affected by Amendment 4 should be told that their jobs are at stake.

"If they [employees] don't want to help out for the campaign and don't want to help out on the 'Vote No on 4' campaign, there is no one requiring them to do that," he said. Asked if the Florida Chamber should tell employers not to cross the line towards pressuring workers, he said, "We don't feel a need to tell our members how to interact with their employees."

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New oil rig explosion creates Florida political firestorm

A new oil rig explosion off the Louisiana coast on Thursday led House Republicans and Democrats to trade accusations about oil drilling. The Mariner Energy production rig caught fire Thursday morning. Thirteen workers were rescued, one with injuries.

There were reports of an oil sheen on the Gulf surface but it was unclear whether the rig was leaking, according to a report by the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The Mariner Energy rig is about 90 miles south of the Louisiana coast and is west of the Deepwater Horizon rig that sank in April, causing one of the nation's worst environmental disasters.

Florida is closely monitoring reports regarding the fire, state emergency management director David Halstead said in a statement. On Wednesday, House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, said House work groups studying the Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster concluded there was no reason to call a special session to deal with potential economic impacts from the oil spill.

Cretul had created the work groups on July 21 when the House abruptly adjourned a special session without taking action on Gov. Charlie Crist's request to put a constitutional oil drilling ban on the ballot before voters in November.

Rep. Adam Fetterman, D-Port St. Lucie, said Thursday in response to the new oil rig accident that Republicans state leaders have shown they are ignorant of the consequences of drilling and deaf to the concerns of local business owners and tourists.

“It’s said that the public has a short memory, and once a disaster is over, they move on to the next issue," Fetterman said in a statement. "Well, that’s exactly what the so-called [Republican] 'leaders' in Tallahassee are hoping."

Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary and chairman of the work group that Fetterman served on, said Fetterman had signed off on the work group recommendations until he issued the news release.

"I'm disappointed that Representative Fetterman would resort to using empty election year rhetoric and playing politics with an issue that seriously impacts so many families and businesses in Florida when earlier this week he told his colleagues otherwise," Dorworth said.

Also Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reopened 5,130 square miles off Florida, Alabama and Mississippi to fishing after samples showed the fish are safe. NOAA also reopened an area off the Panhandle that had been reopened last month for fin fish only. The closest remaining closed areas appear to be about 40 miles off the coast at Cape San Blas in Gulf County and about 60 miles off the rest of the Panhandle. (Click here to view maps.)

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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

BP Claims administrator Feinberg responds to Florida oil spill task force criticism

Members of a state oil spill task force on Wednesday sharply criticized independent claims administrator Kenneth R. Feinberg for his new claims review process while Attorney General Bill McCollum said he plans to meet with Feinberg to discuss their differences.

The BP oil spill that began April 20 sent waves of oil ashore at Pensacola Beach in early July and has continued to send scattered tar balls onto Panhandle beaches. Representatives of real estate, tourism and seafood industries say their businesses were harmed by the spill -- even in areas without oil in water or on beaches.

President Barack Obama in June placed Feinberg in charge of a $20 billion claims fund set up by BP to compensate spill victims. Members of the Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force said Feinberg made a good impression at a task force meeting in Destin on July 28. But they said they were unhappy with the claims policies, also called protocols, that Feinberg laid out when he took over the process on Aug. 23.

Feinberg came across at that meeting as a "knight in shining armor," Monroe County Commissioner Mario Di Gennaro said. "His armor is not shining any more."

McCollum said he plans to meet with Feinberg within the next two weeks he said there is trust between the two men.

"I'm hoping in the next couple of weeks Mister Feinberg will see some light on this," McCollum told reporters after the meeting. "Otherwise it's going to be a long and protracted problem for a lot of people in Florida."

Feinberg told the Florida Tribune he looked forward to meeting with the task force and he said McCollum is "an exemplary public servant."

"But I disagree under OPA (the federal Oil Pollution Act) that any hotel anywhere in the state can somehow recover (for damages," Feinberg said.

Carol B. Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, said her group hired a consortium of lawyers after three meetings with Feinberg were ineffective.

Task force members commented following a presentation byMcCollum and a member of his legal team. But the task force already had agreed to write a letter to Feinberg after some members expressed frustration with the claims process.

McCollum said Feinberg, while stating that the claims process is voluntary, is requiring that people must live near areas that have been affected by oil washing ashore to claim damages.

McCollum also said the federal Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which was enacted to avoid litigation, is broader in its relief than Feinberg is allowing with his protocols.

A visual graphic presented by Russell S. Kent, special counsel for litigation in the Attorney General's Office, showed that BP paid more than $1 million in claims from Broward County on the Atlantic coast, which has not been affected by oil. That showed BP did not use the geographic proximity test, Kent said.

"We've seen recent reports that tourists continue to believe there is oil on our beaches even in areas far removed," he said.

Feinberg said he will continue to consider the issue. But he added: "I am absolutely convinced that my proximity determinations will be much more generous for hotels and restaurants in Florida than if they filed a lawsuit and litigated for five years."

Feinberg will be asked to speak to the task force again, said Chairman Chris Hart, director of the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development. Feinberg told the Florida Tribune he welcomed the opportunity.

During the meeting, Hart also said the panel will send a letter quoting Feinberg's earlier promises and matching them with Florida's concerns. Di Gennaro and some other members suggested that a stronger response may be needed.

"I never thought I'd say this -- that part of me would like to have BP back," added George H. Sheldon, secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families. "That is kind of a frustrating place to be."

Photo by Samuel Wantman, GFDL. 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

Florida wildlife agency adopts new species classification system

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on Wednesday approved a new process for identifying threatened species that would replace the controversial state listing process.

The agency faced a firestorm of opposition in 2007 when it considered moving the manatee from endangered to the less protective "threatened" category on the state list. The commission delayed action at the request of Gov. Charlie Crist.

Scientists said the new agency listing process, adopted in 2005, incorrectly matched categories developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. In response, the commission brought together landowners, boaters and environmentalists to help develop a new listing process, which was adopted Wednessay during a meeting in Pensacola Beach.

"We are all glad they did," Pat Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club said after the vote. "It gave us a chance to find common ground where not very much existed before."

Under the new process any species on the federal endangered and threatened species list will be included automatically on the state list with those federal designations. Any species now listed by the state as endangered or threatened that are not on the federal list also will be placed automatically on the state "threatened" list. The state's "species of special concern" category, the least protective category, will be eliminated but those species will first be evaluated to determine if they should be placed on the state threatened list.

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