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An environmental fraud

For six years, Florida has pretended it is saving precious swamps and marshes from development. Developers have applied for permits.Regulators have reviewed construction projects. Lawmakers have waved reports suggesting the 1984 Henderson Wetlands Act has reversed the trend of wetlands destruction.

As a new study of wetlands regulation confirms, the program is an environmental fraud.

What happens when a developer in Florida wants to bulldoze a mangrove swamp? The state Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) whispers its M-word: mitigation. The swamp can be bulldozed, DER will say, if it is replaced with other wetlands - "mitigated," in the bureaucratic jargon. That policy, which has become something of a regulatory credo under current DER Secretary Dale Twachtmann, is based on the developers' fiction that humans can duplicate the work of nature. The truth is that the intricate and complex marsh systems so vital to Florida's biological survival are not well understood; even many of the state's own experimental attempts to replace them have ended in failure.

As a policy of wetlands protection, mitigation fails miserably. A new report by a respected biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources, David Crewz, confirms what most environmentalists suspected: Developers who are being allowed to destroy vital marshlands are not replacing them with functional wetlands, and the state is doing absolutely nothing about it.

Crewz surveyed 11 mitigation projects in Manatee and Sarasota counties, and what he found is appalling, if predictable. Not one single project, not one, was functioning as a viable wetland as envisioned by state regulators. Ten of the 11 were improperly designed or constructed. Eight were not built according to the plans approved by DER. In one case, DER had allowed a developer to seal off a creek. In another case, DER allowed the developer to dig a pond in a wetlands area as replacement for destroying another wetland.

Crewz concluded: "What has become evident from the site surveys in this and other studies is that all of the links in this chain are weak, especially corrective action. As a result, even though the concept of mitigation is intuitively appealing, its standards for implementation must be viewed as unacceptable."

What also is unacceptable is the regulatory behavior of DER. Under Twachtmann, mitigation has become the rule, not the exception, and he seems ready to write any permit - no matter how great the destruction to wetlands. As an indication, consider that last year he ordered his staff to write a permit approving a preposterous development project in Dade County: a country club development that would have bulldozed 100 acres along Biscayne Bay, a designated aquatic preserve. Fortunately, pressure from environmental groups forced the governor to stop Twachtmann, but that kind of permissive attitude still prevails at DER.

Need a permit? Dale's got one for you.

At DER, the regulators, after writing the permit, also look the other way. In Crewz's survey, nine of the 11 projects had not filed quarterly monitoring reports, as required by law. Yet DER had not taken action in a single case. The group that paid for Crewz's work, ManaSota-88, looked at more than 30 mitigation projects and found only one that DER had bothered to inspect.

DER can correctly claim it lacks personnel for the task. But that won't explain why its administrator, Twachtmann, cut the size of his staff by 11 percent during his first year and then claimed he had too many employees in the dredge-and-fill section that considers wetlands permits. Twachtmann's contempt for meaningful wetlands protection is well-documented. That he continues to file a report with the Legislature each year claiming gains from wetlands mitigation projects is as much a farce as it is an insult.

The Henderson Act, though it sets up legislative authority for mitigation, never envisioned that DER would use it as a welcome mat for bulldozers. The law was supposed to save cypress swamps and saltwater marshes, not turn them over to development on the pretense that such splendid wonders of nature can be rebuilt. As the Crewz study reveals, mitigation is the wetlands lie. For the sake of this hydrological island called Florida, lawmakers have to end it.