History will judge Helen Spivey as a tireless warrior for Florida's fragile environment, not by her won-loss record. Good thing, because as you know, the playing field has never been level when it comes to carving up the land for money.
She chuckled about that a bit last week when I called to talk about Duke Energy's decision to retire its nuclear plant in Crystal River. She recalled attending a hearing some years back when the company's predecessor, Florida Power Corp., wanted to burn low-sulphur coal. Spivey did her usual homework and showed up with reams of documents.
"It was me and seven lawyers from Florida Power,'' she said. "Of course I didn't win.''
Spivey, who moved to Crystal River from St. Petersburg in 1972 with her husband, William, didn't have much occasion to spar with the utility. Rather, she earned her reputation protecting the endangered manatee, serving with singer Jimmy Buffett as co-chairman of the Save the Manatee Club. She convinced her city to adopt modern wastewater methods and served effectively on the City Council and in the Florida Legislature.
As for Florida Power, Spivey recognized its hefty contributions to the community through good-paying jobs and more. It powered not only west-central Florida but also the Citrus County economy, which has a larger stock of expensive homes than you would expect in a rural county. Florida Power's taxes kept others' down. The company encouraged employees to serve on elected boards and service clubs and they made smart decisions on issues dear to Spivey's heart, including growth management and education.
Still, she could never get past one thing. "I still can't,'' she said last week while contemplating the dramatic negative impact closing the nuclear plant will have on the county. "Those radioactive rods aren't going anywhere. This has always been the one thing that stops me with embracing the technology.''
She's dubious about the decontamination plan that allows 60 years to cool things off before disposal, but then jokes that she might stick around long enough to see it. "I'm going to live to 150 and be shot by a jealous housewife,'' she said.
Spivey is 84. Her husband, a retired Navy petty officer, died in 1997 and she sold their stilt home on a lagoon near King's Bay, eventually relocating to Yankeetown. Duke Energy's decision to retire the Crystal River nuclear plant might rekindle its plan to build another in Levy County. Yankeetown is in Levy County, so it wouldn't be a shock to see Spivey show up for any hearings. "The great thing about being this age,'' she said, "is you can say what you always wanted to say but were afraid. I've had to say things carefully.''
She likes Yankeetown. It has 400 other residents, "good people,'' she says. It reminds her of Crystal River before the nuke plant changed everything. A little bit north of town, up U.S. 19 in the hammock that stretches to the Gulf of Mexico, Tarmac America is planning to dig 6 million tons of lime rock. Elected officials are excited about the prospect for jobs and tax revenue. Environmentalists worry about displaced wildlife on the 4,700 acres, possible groundwater degradation, rock trucks on the highways.
Helen Spivey has another front-row seat for a most familiar story.