St. Petersburg Times

November 24, 2007

 

EPA removes expert who criticized Everglades program

By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer

 

Records show the EPA official was taken off the Everglades project after expressing pollution concerns.

 

http://www.sptimes.com/2007/11/24/State/EPA_removes_expert_wh.shtml

 

Richard Harvey was there in 1999 when federal officials unveiled a plan for restoring the Everglades. For seven years, he was the voice of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at meetings on repairing the River of Grass.

 

Now, Harvey's bosses have decided their top water quality expert in Florida no longer will work on the $10-billion Everglades restoration program.

 

The problem: He spoke up.

 

Documents obtained by the St. Petersburg Times show Harvey was removed this year after he expressed concerns about a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to solve Lake Okeechobee's pollution woes by funneling the pollution into Biscayne National Park.

 

The Everglades project approved by Congress in 2000 established a broad outline for the largest public works project in the country, leaving to experts like Harvey the job of detailing how the work would be completed.

 

Harvey is the latest of five experts who have been taken off the project for speaking up about problems with the restoration.

 

Such punishments are having a chilling effect on other government scientists who "are concerned about voicing too strong an opinion," said Mark Perry, co-chair of the Everglades Coalition, an alliance of 45 environmental groups. Squelching the scientists like Harvey hurts the cause of Everglades restoration, he said.

 

The others who have been booted - all state employees - complained about funding problems, offered controversial research or suggested the politicians in charge weren't listening to the scientists. Harvey is the first federal official to be ousted for speaking his mind.

 

Because of the politics, anyone working for a government agency engaged in the Everglades project soon learns "you've got to learn to be judicious in your opinions," said Gene Duncan, director of water resources for the Miccosukkee Tribe, which lives in the Everglades and has pushed for better water quality.

 

It's too bad, Duncan said, because Harvey "represents the best that EPA has."

 

Harvey, who retained his job as the head of the EPA's South Florida office, referred all questions about his ouster to the EPA regional office in Atlanta.

 

Funding has lagged

 

EPA regional administrator Jimmy Palmer, a Bush administration appointee who has made it a policy to defer to state officials, declined a request for an interview. A spokeswoman said he could not comment on "a personnel matter."

 

Plans for the Everglades restoration were unveiled with great fanfare in 1999, but the project has repeatedly stumbled.

 

Federal funding has lagged, delaying construction of key components and driving up the cost. The state's delay in cleaning up the pollution in the River of Grass angered key members of Congress.

 

In September, President Bush vetoed a bill that would have at last provided $2-billion to jump-start some Everglades projects. This month, Congress overrode the veto.

 

Few Everglades experts have been as outspoken about the project's flaws as Harvey. In 2002, for instance, he was quoted in the Washington Post as saying the plan looked like "a massive urban and agricultural water-supply project" aimed at boosting South Florida growth, rather than restoring the River of Grass.

 

One of the biggest flaws that has cropped up is that the Everglades plan failed to deal with continuing pollution problems in Lake Okeechobee. When the lake gets too full, the South Florida Water Management District releases the excess into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, polluting them as well.

 

In 2005 the releases of polluted lake water spawned massive algae blooms in the two rivers, killing fish, driving away tourists and producing a large public backlash against the river releases.

 

But allowing lake water to spill into the Everglades, as it did before the Corps of Engineers built a dike around the lake, won't work either because the Everglades can tolerate only minuscule amounts of phosphorus, one of the lake's main pollutants.

 

In 2005, during a discussion of building reservoirs around the lake to hold back the excess polluted water, Harvey warned in a letter that they could become incubators for more toxic algae blooms.

 

State officials complained that his comments were "irresponsible and unfounded."

 

Then, last fall, corps officials proposed building a $1-billion underground pipeline system to carry off the excess lake water. They called it "a bold step toward restoration."

 

At an Oct. 10, 2006, meeting, Harvey pointed out the pipeline would be dumping pollution into canals flowing into Biscayne National Park, hardly a solution that protects the environment.

 

"Once again we're routing dirty water," Harvey said. "We are extremely concerned because the track record when the district and the corps move dirty water around is some resource gets trashed."

 

Polluted water issue

 

Harvey was participating in the meeting via conference call, according to EPA records, and did not know a Palm Beach Post reporter was present. When his comments appeared in print, Harvey had to explain himself to his boss in Atlanta, Jim Giattina.

 

In an e-mail to Giattina, Harvey said no one was talking about the issue of polluted water being funneled into the national park until he brought it up.

 

"I NEVER question the importance of the issues you raise or your technical competency. What concerns me is HOW you raise the issues," Giattina replied.

 

In January, Giattina wrote Harvey a long memo that said he had discussed Harvey's comments about the pipeline with "several representatives" of other agencies, without naming them. As a result, he wrote, Harvey would no longer serve as the EPA's expert on any aspect of the Everglades project.

 

"I believe that your remarks compromise our ability to have an effective voice on critically important matters with regard to Everglades restoration," Giattina wrote. "I believe your remarks are an indicator that you have lost your ability to be objective regarding the motivation of other key parties involved in Everglades's (sic) restoration."

 

Nevertheless, Giattina wrote, "because this is my first expression of concern in writing to you regarding this matter, I am still rating your performance ... as 'fully successful.'"

 

To Perry of the Everglades Coalition, Harvey was just doing his job.

 

"If we're dumping polluted water into a national park, somebody should raise a red flag," he said. "To take the attitude of 'Oh, we don't want to ruffle any feathers,' that's not going to work."

 

Corps officials could not be reached for comment on whether they had complained about Harvey or were aware of his removal. But some who were aware of Harvey's ouster said the blame likely lies with state officials.

 

"No one's ever going to say it, but I think it was to make sure he and the South Florida Water Management District didn't come into contact anymore," said Wayne Daltry, Lee County's "Smart Growth" coordinator, who pointed out that the corps subsequently dropped the pipeline plan.

 

State officials insist they had nothing to do with what happened to Harvey.

 

"He's a good guy," said Mike Collins, a longtime water district board member. "They didn't consult with me on that one."

 

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

 

FAST FACTS

 

What they said

 

Other officials removed from the Everglades project for making critical comments:

 

- In 1998, the South Florida Water Management District - the main state agency working on the project - fired senior environmental scientist Herbert Grimshaw after he accused his bosses of burying his research on phosphorous levels in the Everglades. A year later, as a result of a lawsuit, he was rehired and his research finally published.

 

- In 1999, the water district fired research scientist Nick Aumen after he complained at a forum on improving communications that the bureaucrats and politicians directing the project were too busy with private meetings or "walking around with cell phones" to listen to scientists.

 

- In 2000, water district Deputy Executive Director Bill Malone resigned under pressure after he was accused of questioning the expense of a multimillion-dollar deal that top officials of Gov. Jeb Bush's administration had worked out to buy farmland for the restoration project.

 

- In 2003 the water district's chief environmental scientist, Lou Toth, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that the push to restore the Everglades was taking away resources from his unfinished work of restoring the Kissimmee River. His comments led to a demotion and a pay cut. Like Harvey, Toth criticized the Everglades project to the Washington Post, saying in 2002 that the restoration plans relied too much on engineering solutions instead of freeing nature from human constraints.