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St. Johns River restoration loses $10 million in Gov. Scott budget

Gov. Rick Scott’s recently signed budget includes a long list of vetoes — many of which amount to a loss of thousands of state jobs and cuts to the disabled, elderly and children. In short, no one was safe. But perhaps one of the biggest victims of Scott’s cuts was the environment. Scott, for example, eliminated a $10 million restoration project for the St. Johns River, the longest and most commercially significant river in Florida.

Representatives of the St. Johns Riverkeeper says the money would have been used as an investment — to help clean up a sick river. Leveraged with other dollars, it would have eventually improved the river’s health.

“The $10 million is a far cry from what is necessary to restore the river’s health,” says Jimmy Orth, executive director of the Riverkeeper, “but it represented an important down payment, especially when existing funding for restoration projects is being slashed.”

St. Johns River restoration cuts, though relatively small, still spell trouble for a waterbody that is already troubled.

The river is often inundated with noxious blue-green algae blooms, some of which stretch so far and wide they are dubbed the “Green Monster.” The blooms are the result of phosphorus and nitrogen, two nutrients that are found in home fertilizers, as well as effluent from utility and industry giants like JEA and Georgia-Pacific (both of which dump directly into the St. Johns).

A set of numeric nutrient criteria, which are currently proposed by the EPA, would help stave off the problem, but the criteria are highly divisive and have been delayed for years — steeped in a pile of lawsuits and propaganda so large, they are unlikely to make much headway anytime soon. That means short-term hopes for a St. Johns recovery are based on restoration, a project that has now been set back by the Scott administration.

The legislature has also significantly altered the regulatory framework that affects the environment. An amendment tacked on to House Bill 993 will make it more difficult to challenge consumptive use permits. Supporters of the amendment argued that it would cut back on “frivolous” lawsuits challenging permits.

In an earlier interview with The Florida Independent, Orth called the amendment “a huge setback,” arguing that it is already extremely difficult to challenge permits and even harder to win in an administrative hearing. According to Orth, the measure was just another way to “silence the opposition and cut citizens out of the process.”

“The expense and time required to mount a successful challenge discourage many from filing for a hearing, even if there is strong evidence of significant potential environmental harm,” Orth said. “In my experience, I have seen numerous bad projects sail through the permitting process unchallenged or with little resistance, but no frivolous lawsuits that I am aware of. If frivolous lawsuits do exist, they were certainly never able slow down the growth machine.”

Protecting and restoring the health of the St. Johns River will require a significant investment of resources, in addition to smart regulations and policies that effectively limit pollution. Thus far, those resources, regulations and policies have all suffered drastic cuts.

“Rick Scott has no idea about the St. Johns River or its value,” says the Riverkeeper’s Neil Armingeon. “I suggest he come over here this summer and see firsthand the ‘Green Monster’ and its impacts on our economy. He loves to hold rallies here in Jacksonville. He should schedule one of his events next to the St. Johns when it is full of toxins and green goo, and then he will see how much support he finds here.”

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