Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Nestlé drops idea of water pumping near Wacissa River

Nestlé Waters North America on Wednesday told state officials the company no longer is considering a water-pumping operation along the Wacissa River in Jefferson County.

Nestlé, a global water company which includes bottling operations near Blue Spring in Madison County and near Crystal Springs in Pasco County, said testing of Allen Spring along the Wacissa showed a lack of sufficient flow during droughts. The company had not yet filed for a permit but faced local and regional opposition to the idea of pumping.

"We have shared this data with the Suwannee River Water Management District to support their ongoing assessment of the watershed and informed them that this concludes our exploration of spring sources on the Wacissa River,” said Kent Koptiuch, Florida natural resource manager for Nestlé Waters North America.

Water bottling has raised concerns among some residents who don't like the idea of selling a public resource or worry about the effects on area wells, stream flows and aquatic life. Company officials, who also tout the jobs created by their plants, said they conducted tests along the Wacissa River to ensure there would not be environmental harm.

Georgia Ackerman, president of the Friends of Wacissa, said she doesn't doubt that the company is dropping the idea of pumping from the Wacissa River springs. But she said her group is not going away.

"Obviously the Friends of the Wacissa coalition is elated at the news," Ackerman said. "We will continue our work on springs protection issues."

In the Florida Capitol, the issue of water bottling has been lopsided in favor of the bottling companies in recent years.

The Legislature established a six-percent sales tax exemption on bottled water in 1998. Bills by Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, to remove the exemption died in committees in 2010 and 2011.

In 2009, then-Gov. Charlie Crist proposed a surcharge on bottled water but the idea never made it into the state budget after Big Bend Democratic representatives voiced opposition.

(Photo by Richard Zelznak. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Gopher tortoises became candidate for federal protection

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Tuesday that gopher tortoises warrant federal Endangered Species Act protection in Florida and Southern states east of the Mississippi.

The tortoise will become a candidate for listing as threatened and endangered east of the Mississippi River including Florida. But the gopher tortoises won't be listed for protection because the agency doesn't have the money, said Cynthia Dohner, southeast regional director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"We never know as much as what we would like to know," Dohner said. "But we know tortoise habitat conditions are deteriorating and its habitat is more and more fragmented across the southeast."

Gopher tortoises face threats from development and lack of proper forest management including lack of prescribed fires in their upland habitat, agency officials said. In Florida, gopher tortoises are listed as threatened and developers must relocate them away from construction sites.

The decision on Tuesday to list tortoises as a federal candidate species doesn't mean there will be any additional restrictions on landowners, federal officials said.

There are more than 250 species on the candidate list that are in line ahead of the gopher tortoise for evaluation and possible listing, agency officials said.

Gopher tortoises are considered a key species in upland forests because other threatened and endangered animals depend on their burrows for habitat. The tortoises can live to be over 50 years old, but do not reproduce until they are 13 to 21 years old.

Although there seems to be many gopher tortoises, the agency says the current generation is aging and not reproducing successfully because of degraded habitat. As older gopher tortoises die, they are not being replaced by young ones.

The decision to designate the gopher tortoise as a candidate for listing means landowners will be eligible for grants to improve their forest habitat.

Save Our Big Scrub and Wild South Inc. filed a petition in 2006 that led to the agency announcement on Tuesday to list the species as a candidate. Agency officials said they hoped to evaluate all species on the list within five years.

The Center for Biological Diversity submitted comments in favor of protecting the gopher tortoise and said the announcement Tuesday provided hope for its protection.

“The gopher tortoise is clearly in trouble and if it’s going to survive, it’s going to need the help that only the Endangered Species Act can provide,” Tierra Curry, a conservation biologist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a written statement. "We hope the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will prioritize funding to make sure the tortoise gets the protection it needs."

A copy of the petition and the agency register notice can be viewed at .

(Images courtesy of the U. S. Fish and Wildlife service. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Florida PSC may reconsider energy goals set in 2009

The Florida Public Service Commission on Tuesday rejected energy conservation plans proposed for the state's two largest electric utilities because of concerns about cost.

Instead, commissioners said they may reconsider the conservation goals set by the PSC only two years ago -- before the Legislature removed four of the five commission members at the time.

"Sometimes certain things work during certain periods and they make sense in terms of policy," Commissioner Ronald Brise said. "But when things change, sometimes we may have to change with the times to address the issues that are before us."

The PSC voted to reject plans for Florida Power & Light Co. and Progress Energy required under the Florida Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act (FEECA) of 2008.

Instead the commission is asking that all seven of the state's largest utilities tell the agency how quickly they can provide updated information that can be used for setting new conservation goals. The decision on Tuesday leaves existing conservation programs, including solar rebate programs, in place at Progress Energy and FPL.

The agency staff had recommended approval of an alternative plan submitted by Progress Energy because of concerns about the cost to the utility's 1.6 million customers. That alternative plan would raise the monthly conservation cost from $3.24 now to a peak of $6.13 in 2014.

That plan would not have met the conservation goals set by the agency in 2009. A plan to meet those goals would have increased the monthly cost to $11.28 next year and $20 by 2017.

Agency staff recommended approval of an FPL plan that would meet the energy-saving goals set by the commission. That plan would have raised the monthly conservation cost for the average customer from $2.26 now to $4.11 in 2014.

Progress Energy officials said the agency set higher conservation goals for them compared to other utilities and they don't know why. They said achieving greater energy savings over existing conservation programs would cost more.

A representative of the Florida Industrial Power Users Group warned the commission that electricity rates are a key factor when companies decide to open plants and bring new jobs to Florida.

And the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which supported the conservation goals, argued that the PSC failed to conduct a thorough analysis to determine why Progress Energy conservation programs would cost so much more than for other utilities.

Commissioner Julie I. Brown asked whether the goals set by the PSC in 2009 were "too lofty." She is among the four new commissioners who replaced four commissioners last year when four reform-minded commissioners were not reappointed or confirmed.

Commissioner Lisa Edgar, the only commissioner remaining from 2009, responded that those goals were "robust and aspirational" as provided by state law. She said the law also provides flexibility for commissioners to re-examine the goals they have set.

After the meeting, Tom Larson of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said the commission had "punted" on approving conservation programs that would benefit Florida residents.

He noted that the PSC on Tuesday also approved making more FPL commercial and industrial electricity customers eligible for a discount because they locate new operations in Florida or expand existing operations. Larson said no one asked what the rate impact would be on customers as they did with the conservation measures.

"One side of the mouth says one thing," Larson said of the PSC. "The next docket (case), they say the next thing."

Photo by Intergrated Building and Construction Solutions. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Monday, July 25, 2011

Florida parks increase visitors after drop in previous year

Honeymoon Island State Park

Maybe the slow economy is encouraging people to rediscover nature. Or maybe the weather just was more inviting this past year.

For whatever reasons, attendance at Florida state parks increased slightly in 2010-11 following a sharp dip the previous year, according to state park officials.

Park attendance in fiscal year 2010-11 increased to 20.4 million, up 332,191 from 2009-10 for an increase of 1.6 percent. The increase comes despite the 2010 BP oil spill that discouraged beach tourism along with the continuing economic malaise.

Last year, park attendance dropped by 1.3 million, or 6.7 percent, from 2009-11.

Park officials last year said they couldn't explain the decrease. But the change followed the Legislature increasing park entrance fees from 40 to 60 percent in 2009.

The fee increase also resulted in a 20-percent increase in entrance fee collection despite the decline in attendance. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection requested the fee increase in 2009, saying it would help park visitors pay more of the cost of running state parks.

Another possible factor in the drop last year may have led to the increase this year -- weather.

Last year, record cold temperatures gripped the state during the winter and early spring of 2010. Much of the decline in visitation last year occurred at beach parks listed among the 10 most popular in the state.

Photo courtesy of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and . Do not redistribute without permission.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Author hopes nature stories will turn around Florida politics

The environment didn't cause the recession so it shouldn't become victim of the current political climate.

So says Florida nature writer Bill Belleville, author of "Salvaging the Real Florida: Lost and Found in the State of Dreams."

He hopes his new book will help people develop their own environmental ethic that may turn the political situation around for Florida environment.

Belleville, who lives in Sanford along the St. Johns River, has established himself as one of Florida's best modern nature writers, which is saying a lot. His previous books include "Deep Cuba," "Losing it all to Sprawl" and "River of Lakes: A Journey on Florida's St. Johns River."

The state has a great history of nature writers extending from William Bartram, Archie Carr and Marjory Stoneman Douglas to modern day novelist Carl Hiaasen and journalists Craig Pittman and Cynthia Barnett, a friend and former coworker.

But all the books in a library don't seem to make a dent on environmental issues as they're now being played out in the state Capitol.

Gov. Rick Scott says he is focused on boosting the economy and eliminating "job-killing regulations."

He also vetoed funding for the Florida Forever land acquisition program and signed bills eliminating the Florida Department of Community Affairs and making it more difficult for those who would challenge pollution permits.

This past legislative session was the worst in memory for most environmentalists as industry groups used the stalled economy to push through law changes.

"Nature didn't cause the recession," Belleville said, echoing former Department of Community Affairs Secretary Tom Pelham and a few in the Legislature who point to the thousands of vacant condo units as evidence that regulations didn't burst the housing bubble.

Belleville hopes his book can make a difference, on the personal level and the political level. But he doesn't wade deeply into politics, other than to take an occasional shot at developers and their "shills" in the Legislature.

Instead, he takes us to Florida's beautiful places, such as Key Largo's colorful coral reefs and a sunset at Cedar Key to explain the history and natural riches that surround us.

Sometimes he holds up a mirror to reflect our society's reflexive response to something like the annoying midges in Sanford along the St. Johns River. The solution: Spray pesticides on the insects, as well as people enjoying an outdoor dining experience.

"Salvaging the Real Florida" is a grab bag of fascinating short chapters for easy bedside reading. And the introduction may be the strongest portion, for it lays out the threats to Florida and the need for people to connect to nature.

"I deeply respect those who get off their butts and take a stand without worrying about how it affects their job security, their perceived social standing or public image," Belleville writes. "The pervasive corporate mentality can breed a dangerous sort of toadyness in human nature that will sooner or later dissolve all that is righteous or fair."

But Belleville doesn't use "Salvaging the Real Florida" as a soapbox. In an interview, he explains that he uses the power of the narrative with the aim of changing people's lives.

"I'd really hope someone would read that book and say, 'I'd like to have a closer relationship with what is left with the natural heart of Florida," he said. "Maybe from that connection will come an ethic. Maybe next time when our current leadership comes up (for re-election), people will be more motivated" to take a stand.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Gov. Scott's late parks announcement not a sneak attack, aide says

Scott told reporters after visiting DEP in February that he enjoys visiting state parks and they should be protected.

After a week of controversy involving Florida Park Service proposals to put recreational vehicle campgrounds in four state parks, Gov. Rick Scott announced last Friday he was pulling the plug on at least the proposal at Honeymoon Island State Park.

But was the timing of the governor's announcement -- after 7 p.m. on a Friday night -- a deliberate attempt to squelch publicity on the issue? No, says Amy Graham, the governor's traveling press secretary.

But don't blame an environmental reporter for at first being suspicious. The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency previously had a track record for making sneaky announcements, a strategy dubbed by some reporters the "Friday night surprise."

But first, a little background on the firestorm in Florida.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said in May it was considering putting new RV campgrounds in more than 50 parks that now lack camping. DEP said the campgrounds could help create jobs and encourage park visitation.

The proposal, which had created some concerns among environmentalists, became embroiled in controversy after the agency scheduled public meetings on proposed campgrounds at De Leon Springs, Fanning Springs, Honeymoon Island and Wakulla Springs state parks. More than 400 attended the Honeymoon Island proposal with hundreds more opponents unable to get in.

Then later last week, the Pinellas County legislative delegation scheduled a public hearing for this coming Thursday to discuss just that one issue. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, even established a "Save Honeymoon Island" Facebook site to organize opposition.

DEP Secretary Herschel T. Vinyard Jr. returned from vacation early to deal with the issue on Thursday. And Scott announced Friday that the Honeymoon Island proposal was being pulled and that the other proposals would receive further review.

"The only reason that announcement came out as late as it did (on Friday) is because DEP briefed the governor's office late in the day," Graham said Monday.

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency's under President George W. Bush had a tendency to make controversial announcements late on Friday, when reporters may be less likely to cover an issue because they are out or are wrapping up other stories before the weekend.

Some environmental reporters dubbed the late announcements the "Friday night surprise." The Society of Environmental Journalists in March 2010 asked the EPA to stop the practice when possible and to try to provide advance notice to journalists. (See "SEJ Comments on How to Make EPA More Open"

Some critics of the proposed campgrounds in Florida State Parks said the process of approving appeared rushed. And they welcomed Scott's announcement, regardless of the timing on Friday.

"It appeared the people were given a chance to speak," League of Women Voters President Deirdre Macnab said Tuesday. "Their input was received and considered."

Julie Wraithmell of Audubon of Florida said she wondered about the timing but she doesn't think Scott was trying to sweep the matter under the rug.

"I guess I just wrote it off to him doing it expeditiously because so many people were alarmed by it," Wraithmell said.

(Photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Florida environmental commission is a shell of its former self

Gov. Rick Scott last month reappointed Cari Roth to the state Environmental Regulation Commission. But if recent history is an indicator, she shouldn't find the position to be too time-consuming.

The ERC sets standards and rules for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Most issues that go before the commission deal with air pollution, water quality and waste management.

The commission used to meet almost monthly in the 1990s, according to observers. But the meetings have dropped off sharply in the past three years as have proposals for new rules and regulations.

Environmental groups criticized Scott for shutting down the state rule-making process with his order on Jan. 4 to freeze and review all new proposed rules. But the slowdown in ERC activity began before Scott took office as the Legislature has steadily trimmed the commission's authority.

The ERC met seven times in 2008 and three times in both 2009 and 2010. The ERC has not met this year and doesn't have a meeting scheduled for this month.

With law changes that require ratification by the Legislature of rules and regulations, the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation now is studying whether the ERC is needed. A staff report is due Sept. 1.

Former Rep. Dick Batchelor, D-Orlando, said he worked closely with Carol Browner when she was head of the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) from 1991 to 1993. Browner left to become the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator but Batchelor remained commission chairman until 1997. And DER became the Department of Environmental Protection.

"We had similar agendas and we worked very closely together in the rulemaking process," Batchelor said. "That was absolutely, totally different than today when it doesn't seem the secretaries of DEP assert themselves in any rulemaking. And the ERC has become miniaturized in the rulemaking process."

The ERC meets as needed, said Jennifer Diaz, a Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman. If there is a rule that needs a new standard, then staff brings it to the commission.

"The number of meetings conducted does not directly correlate to the amount of business conducted," Diaz said in an email. "Therefore, less frequent ERC meetings does not equate to less environmental protection."

Audubon of Florida's Charles Lee said the ERC now only ratifies rules proposed by DEP staff or by petition and can no longer propose its own rule changes.

"Fifteen or 20 years ago they (commission members) literally were the governing board of DER," Lee said. "The chairman of ERC at that point was probably just as powerful as the secretary of DER."

But Frank Matthews, an attorney with Hopping Green & Sams representing the Association of Florida Community Developers, said he doesn't look back on those years as being the good ol' days.

"The ERC perceived itself as a policy-setting body as opposed to a standards-setting body," Matthews said. "The reason they are less active is the Legislature clarified they are supposed to be responsive to direction and policy originating from the Legislature. They were not supposed to divine or create policy but to implement standards based on policy from the Legislature."

Batchelor was passed over by the Senate for confirmation in 1997 and left the ERC. Matthews and Batchelor describe differently what happened .

"Dick was a great guy an excellent legislator," Matthews said. "It was hard for him not to blur the roles" of being an ERC member versus being a legislator.

Batchelor, now a business and policy planning consultant in Orlando, said he was passed over because he was so outspoken.

"I was assaulted by Frank Matthews and sugar and agriculture and phosphate (industries) as being true pro-environmental," Batchelor said.

Now he says the commission, the department and the state's five water management district have become the handmaidens of those industries who want unfettered development.

The state's clash with the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency over water quality standards, he said, is a good example of how the weakened role of the commission and DEP is affecting the public.

The EPA in 2009 agreed with environmental groups that the state's water quality standards were insufficient and that excess nitrogen and phosphorus had created algae blooms in waterways. The EPA has imposed new federal standards beginning in 2012 that utilities, agriculture and industry groups say will be difficult and expensive to meet.

Even though the ERC was meeting less prior to 2011 under then-Gov. Charlie Crist, Batchelor says the commission and DEP have abdicated their roles. And Batchelor blames Scott, the new pro-jobs governor, for going further in "eviscerating" environmental protection policy.

"I think the public wants laws to protect the environment," Batchelor said. "I don't think they want the Legislature to abandon its role -- to surrender all of its influence on growth management and development to special interests."

"I think once the public (realizes), the pressure will come to bear. It's not going to be a short turnaround. It's going to take a couple of years."

(ERC photo by Bruce Ritchie. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained from