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02/06/2008

Study request 'too broad,' says federal chief

Published By: Sun Herald

Analysis of all impacts on Peace, Myakka rivers still possible, advocates say

The way the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program requested a federal study not just to consider the impacts of phosphate mining, but also those of agriculture and residential development on both the Peace and Myakka rivers, provided the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers a reason to deny the request, according to several NEP committee members involved in the request.

But the rejection by the Army Corps' wetland-impact permitting department now has some members of the Citizens Advisory Committee of the NEP, which originally suggested the areawide impact study, considering alternatives to get the evaluation accomplished.

Kathleen Rohrer, an NEP citizens committee member, suggested a coalition of area counties, the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research, the mining industry and other private groups contribute funding. That group could cover areas of the study outside the scope of the federal government's jurisdiction, she said.

Meanwhile, the Sarasota County Commission, after a workshop Tuesday, briefly discussed another option. It calls for the Peace River Management Council to be used as the vehicle to form a partnership to fund a comprehensive impact study, said Sarasota County Commissioner Jon Thaxton, who has been appointed by his county to the council.

Those discussions are coming in response to a Jan. 8 letter from an Army Corps permitting chief to the NEP. The corps, in the letter, concludes the NEP's request is "overbroad." It calls for evaluating activities that may or may not involve impacts to waters of the United States, which is the agency's jurisdiction, wrote David Hobbie, chief of the Corps' regulatory division, headquartered in Jacksonville.

"I think they're using, at least in part, the 'ag' and development onus as a means of sidestepping the issue," Rohrer said. "The problem, I think, is that they're throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

She said she feels phosphate mining causes serious impacts that warrant an Areawide Environmental Impact Statement, something the Army Corps has refused to conduct for the past 10 years.

Charles Schnepel, chief of the corps' Tampa regulatory office, said he believes his agency is now conducting sufficient environmental assessments of phosphate-mining proposals. So even if the NEP had asked for a study focused solely on phosphate mining impacts, he would not likely support it.

Schnepel suggested that the area's residents ask their regional planning council to conduct the broader study that the NEP requested. The council's staff includes experts who can evaluate such impacts, he said.

However, he also warned such a study might not serve the federal agency's permitting process.

"Would we be receiving information that would allow us to make better decisions on our permits for phosphate?" Schnepel asked. "I'd have to say I'm not sure.

"I mean, if there are some issues out there that we have not considered that we aren't sufficiently reviewing, you can call me, we can discuss this and, if I concur, we will provide the assessment," he added.

Schnepel also said his agency has stepped up its scrutiny of phosphate-mining proposals. The scrutiny has come over the past decade as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection recognized new concerns, he said.

Charlotte County's administrative challenges of DEP permits for phosphate mines indirectly helped that process by causing delays in state permitting, he said.

"The (applications) we looked at historically have not had the review we're putting into the current applications we have on hand," Schnepel said. "We've certainly learned much more than we knew even 10 years ago, and, as such, we are requiring more from the applicants."

The NEP has been requesting the federal study since 2000. In December, at the suggestion of its citizens committee, the NEP sent a letter to the Army Corps renewing its request for "a programmatic areawide environmental impact statement to address cumulative impacts for all types of development -- agriculture, mining, residential -- in the Peace and Myakka River basins."

Several counties have pledged to help finance such a comprehensive federal study. But Schnepel pointed out the study could take several years and cost millions of dollars. He questioned whether the funding pledges will actually cover the total costs. Debra Highsmith, another member of the NEP citizens committee, said she considers the corps' response "very dismissive and partially condescending."

However, she also said the NEP would likely not support a study limited to the impacts of phosphate mining. "From the Charlotte Harbor NEP's perspective, that would be a nonstarter, because I'm sure the NEP would not want to be punitive of any one aspect," she said.

Highsmith said she moved to Florida from western Pennsylvania, where the federal government had worked to protect the environment from coal strip mining.

"If it can be done there, why can't it be done here, and who should do it?" Highsmith asked. "Who is here to protect our watershed?"

You can e-mail Greg Martin at gmartin@sun-herald.com.

By Greg Martin Staff Writer

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