TAMPA — For years, Florida's largest environmental consulting firm, Biological Research Associates, has helped private companies win government permits to pave over wetlands and destroy wildlife habitat.
Even government agencies, including the state Department of Environmental Protection, have hired the firm known as B.R.A.
But over the years, records show, B.R.A. has produced information of questionable accuracy:
• In Hillsborough County, B.R.A. reported finding no wildlife habitat on a development site, only to have county officials discover more than 100 acres still being used by wildlife. That part of the property was thus off-limits for development.
• In Miami-Dade County, B.R.A. said mining near Everglades National Park would have no effect on endangered wood storks there. A federal judge called the assessment "patently absurd."
• In Levy County, B.R.A. told state officials that a zoning change for a rock mine had been approved by a unanimous vote of the County Commission. Actually, the commission had not even considered it.
"It was preposterous for them to say that," said Inglis Town Commissioner Ed Michaels, whose Withlacoochee Area Residents' group discovered the false information. "To me it sullied their credibility." He calls B.R.A. "biostitutes" — a word combining "biologist" and "prostitute" — explaining, "They're for hire."
Not true, said B.R.A. vice president Doug Durbin. He said his company puts science first, no matter the consequences to its clients.
"We operate within the constraints of federal and state laws. We will never get caught in the position of telling a client, 'Go ahead and do this, nobody will notice,' " Durbin said. However, he added: "We can be innovative or creative in the way we work in compliance with the law."
But others in the environmental consulting industry say B.R.A. has long been known to put its clients' demands ahead of accurate science.
B.R.A. "is considered kind of a black hat in the consulting business," said Ray Ashton, a longtime consultant from the Gainesville area. "You can make it really good for your clients by skirting the rules and endangering the resource. This is how this game is played."
Ashton said he once followed a B.R.A. team that was supposed to check a client's property for sand skinks, a protected species. Finding them there would complicate the client's plans.
Usually biologists look for skinks by carefully laying out boards at regular intervals in the sandy terrain the animals prefer, then coming back later to count the skinks hiding beneath them. Ashton said he saw the B.R.A. crew drive along a road "tossing the boards out wherever they landed. … That's how not to get any."
This kind of work passes muster because Florida has no performance standards for environmental consultants. There are no licensing requirements; there is no board to investigate complaints.
Roy "Robin" Lewis, a consultant for more than 30 years, said he often tells biology students there is only one criterion for becoming a Florida environmental consultant. Then he holds up his arm and asks, "You got a pulse?"
A decade ago, Lewis and some other consultants tried to persuade the Legislature to require licenses for their industry to weed out the bad apples. The effort failed, said consultant Tom Cuba, because lawmakers "couldn't see the harm of an improperly made environmental decision." Now his firm gets nearly half its business from clients looking for someone to fix the mistakes made by other consultants.
Because a consultant who fudges the science doesn't risk losing a license, Lewis said, "there's no downside to being bad."
• • •
B.R.A. started in 1973 as a two-man operation in a Tampa garage. Since then it has expanded to seven offices around the state, plus a sleek headquarters in a corporate park off U.S. 301 in Riverview.
For the past three years, the Tampa Bay Business Journal has repeatedly ranked it first in total billing among all environmental consulting firms in Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties. Its revenues hit $20-million in 2007, double the level from four years before. A Houston conglomerate, Entrix, bought control last year but continues to run it as B.R.A.
The company is widely influential. It routinely provides instructors for the Florida Chamber of Commerce's annual course for engineers, attorneys and government officials on how to process permits. One of its top executives, J. Steve Godley, is the Florida Home Builders Association's representative in advising state wildlife officials on gopher tortoise regulations. It has cultivated a relationship with the University of South Florida's biology department, enabling the company to hire "the cream of the crop from USF," Durbin said.
Critics focus on one or two missteps by B.R.A., Durbin said, and "they miss the 999 projects that came before that were great."
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection liked B.R.A. enough to hire the company to help set statewide water pollution limits. Other government agencies on B.R.A.'s client list: Tampa Bay Water and the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
Pasco County taxpayers have spent more than $140,000 for B.R.A.'s help in obtaining a federal permit to build a $100-million highway through 50 acres of wetlands in the middle of a nature preserve. But B.R.A. has had to redo some of its previous studies because federal regulators found flaws. Those do-overs are one reason Pasco has spent a decade pursuing the federal permit with nothing to show for it yet, according to Mike Nowicki of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
State and local agencies frequently turn to B.R.A. for help because they lack the staff and expertise to do the job themselves, Durbin said.
"Most of the time the work that's done by consulting firms is superior to what's being done by government agencies," Durbin said.
However, one such government contract led to questions about the firm's objectivity.
In 1986, B.R.A. was hired by Tampa Bay's water managers to study a critical question: Was it hurting the region's wetlands by pumping too much drinking water out of the ground?
During a legal battle in 1996, a letter turned up showing that the water authority's attorney had a different idea about what B.R.A. should be doing. The attorney's letter told B.R.A.'s top executive that the company's real job would be "proving that well field withdrawals are not the primary cause of the environmental impacts taking place. …"
The B.R.A. biologist who did the work, Shirley Denton, testified that she never saw that letter and did not skew her results in the client's favor. But when an attorney asked Denton to explain her role, she said it was "to support our client's role in this proceeding. That's the role of any consultant."
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Conflicts do sometimes arise between B.R.A. and government regulators. Take what happened with a ranch called Live Oak in northern Hillsborough County.
In 1991, county officials passed an ordinance to protect significant wildlife habitat from being developed. Landowners were busy turning possible habitat into pasture before the ordinance took effect so it would not hinder their development plans.
A group of Saudi investors who owned the ranch off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard hired B.R.A. "to plan, oversee and effect the planting of additional pastureland on the property," according to a lawsuit the investors later filed. Over the next two years, B.R.A. continued to advise Live Oak on environmental issues.
In 1993, Godley, then B.R.A.'s president, and Denton, its vice president, signed a letter saying the ranch no longer had any significant wildlife habitat.
"All uplands on Live Oak Cattle Ranch have been improved to pasture land," they wrote.
So Live Oak asked Hillsborough officials to rezone the ranch for more than 1,500 homes, 175,000 square feet of stores and offices, and a golf course.
A county biologist decided to check B.R.A.'s work. With Godley tagging along, the biologist walked the property and found more than 100 acres of significant wildlife habitat that could not be developed. She also threatened to cite Live Oak for illegally clearing the rest of the land.
Live Oak sued B.R.A. for negligence, seeking more than $2-million. The consultant settled, paying $50,000, Durbin said.
"That's the only case where B.R.A. has been named as a defendant in a suit," he said.
But it's not the only one where B.R.A.'s work became the focus of a suit.
• • •
Mining companies began excavating limestone from an area just northeast of Everglades National Park in the 1950s. Today, the mines annually produce about 40-million tons of sand and stone — blasted out with dynamite — used in cement, concrete and asphalt.
Because the square, water-filled quarries resemble lakes, the 89-square-mile limestone mining area has been dubbed the Lake Belt — although the lakes are biologically dead.
In 2001, the Army Corps of Engineers granted 10 of the Lake Belt mining companies permits to mine an additional 5,400 acres of Everglades marsh over the next decade.
Initially the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expressed concerns that the mining would hurt endangered wood storks, which forage for food in the wetlands. But a report by B.R.A., hired by the mining companies, said more than 90 percent of the area to be mined was "not high quality wood stork foraging habitat." Mining would have no adverse effect on the species, B.R.A. said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service did not do its own study, instead relying on B.R.A.'s report as grounds to give the miners a green light. That cleared the way for the corps to issue the permits.
Environmental groups sued. In 2006, Senior U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler issued a 186-page opinion that blasted the federal regulators for myriad missteps, including taking B.R.A.'s report as gospel.
The notion that wood storks would not be harmed by the miners dynamiting the wetlands was "patently absurd — for the acknowledged destruction of several hundred acres of wetlands foraging habitat clearly presents an 'adverse' impact," the judge wrote.
Earlier this year, an appeals court overturned Hoeveler's ruling on technical grounds and sent it back to him for reconsideration. Meanwhile, the Fish and Wildlife Service did a new assessment of what impact mining would have on the wood storks. Using information supplied by B.R.A., the federal agency came to the same conclusion as B.R.A.
As a result, Durbin said, "the work that B.R.A. did on wood storks has now become the prescribed standard for how those are done." Fish and Wildlife Service officials would not comment on Durbin's assertion.
• • •
The Lake Belt is not the only place in Florida where limestone can be mined. Florida Cement wants to mine rock from 2,700 acres in Levy County about 5 miles north of Inglis, on land that lies between Goethe State Forest and Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park.
To get started, Florida Cement needed a permit from the Southwest Florida Water Management District to drill a test pit. In a December 2005 letter seeking the permit, a B.R.A. employee wrote, "We have received approval for rezoning of this agricultural area to conduct mining operations per recent unanimous vote of the Levy County commissioners."
That information was "totally false," said Michaels, the Inglis commissioner. "It wasn't agricultural land, and it wasn't rezoned."
By the time Michaels' group discovered the erroneous information, though, the permit had been issued and the test drilling had been carried out.
Durbin said the erroneous information was simply a "scrivener's error" — like a typo. County commissioners had no objection to the test drilling, so there was no harm done, he said.
Opponents of the mining project were also outraged by B.R.A.'s wildlife survey, which found only two indigo snakes on the property. The timber company that owns the property had previously reported finding swallowtail kites, ibis, wood storks and black bears, Michaels' group pointed out during a March public hearing. State officials want to buy the site to use as a wildlife corridor between the nearby state park and state forest.
Durbin pointed out that just because his company found only two indigo snakes, that doesn't mean there aren't other animals on the site. To imply that would be inaccurate, he said.
"We're not in the business of covering up, misleading or misdirecting," he said. "I can't sleep at night if I do something that aids or assists or abets a client doing something wrong."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
Lake Belt Mining district
Ridge Road expansion
Levy County Mines
Live Oak Cattle Ranch