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Congress protects Florida's West Coast from offshore drilling

Congress on Saturday blocked the sale of oil drilling leases along Florida's West Coast and finally killed off the Cross Florida Barge Canal, but a third state project sought by environmentalists was doomed. Authorization of a $270-million project to restore the Kissimmee River north of Lake Okeechobee apparently died late Saturday because of late-hour objections by House Republicans and the Bush administration. A study of the project will continue, however, making it possible it could be approved in the next few years.

Despite the last-minute defeat, Florida lawmakers took credit for new environmental programs, including the rewrite of the Clean Air Act, as well as spending for several other projects.

"Florida scored a triple victory. We protected our clean beaches, we upgraded the Clean Air Act and created a greenway from the St. John's River to the Gulf of Mexico," said Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla.

The "greenway" will constitute a conservation and recreation corridor at least 300 yards wide and as wide as a mile or more along what was once the intended path of the canal. The state will administer it.

The legislation, also backed by Ocala Rep. Cliff Stearns and Jacksonville Rep. Charles Bennett, de-authorizes the Franklin Roosevelt-era canal project. The canal was once touted as a safe waterway during World War II, and its supporters in Congress kept the project alive for decades despite the opposition of environmentalists. Only short portions, including a stretch in Citrus County, were actually dredged.

Bennett, the last remaining defender of the project in Congress, said he abandoned his support because he is a "realist." He said his legislation ensures the state cannot permit the land to be developed. He envisions a scenic highway winding through the area in the future.

"I do feel deeply about keeping it a park or a conservation area. I don't think the state government does, but I think I've got them locked into it," said Bennett, first elected to Congress in 1948.

Florida's lawmakers also teamed up to prevent offshore oil and gas drilling from Naples north to the Panhandle. Action taken Saturday blocks plans by the Bush administration to offer the area for leasing in November 1991.

It means Florida's entire West Coast is now protected from drilling. Earlier this year, President Bush declared an area south of Naples to the Florida Keys off limits for a decade. The measure Congress passed Saturday could delay drilling north of Naples for several years.

But the new ban almost didn't make it. The oil industry, with the help of Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, and Sen. J. Bennett Johnston, D-La., sought to pull the Florida ban out of a conference report passed by both chambers. Oil industry allies argue that the U.S. should increase domestic oil production to lessen reliance on unstable foreign countries for petroleum.

Supporters of the Florida ban thought they lost late Friday, as negotiators tentatively agreed to drop it but keep bans on areas elsewhere. But St. Petersburg Rep. C.

W. Bill Young, a senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, lobbied the negotiators late Friday night and again early Saturday, finally persuading them to continue to protect Florida, his aides said. He was helped by Florida Democratic Rep. Bill Lehman.

The Florida lawmakers weren't as fortunate when it came to the Kissimmee River project, however.

Graham and some of his colleagues want to restore the river to its original path. The river was converted to a 52-mile ditch in 1971 to control flooding.

The Bush administration opposed the Kissimmee restoration, however, saying it should not be authorized before a study of the project is completed. That led negotiators last week to remove it from a huge bill on water projects.

Graham, angered by the move, threatened to block passage of the entire, $2.5-billion water bill if the Florida project wasn't included.

Graham's gambit forced the Senate to take up the Kissimmee project as a separate bill. The bill passed Saturday morning, but the House did not take it up.

House members refused to consider the authorization bill on the last day of the session. As a result, the supporters will have to renew their fight in the next few years. A study of the project is due to be completed by April 1992.

Projects of interest to Florida included:

$22-million for the national bone marrow donor program advocated by Rep. Young of St. Petersburg.

Lawmakers also decided to name a Navy donor recruitment program the "C.

W. Bill Young Marrow Donor Recruitment and Research Program."

$12-million for a parking garage in Gainesville, replacing a garage that had to be torn down to make room for a psychiatric care center for veterans.

However, congressional aides said a cost of living increase for veterans would die because it is tied up in a dispute over Agent Orange.

$10.2-million for a 120-bed nursing home for veterans in Palm Beach County and $8.9-million to expand a veterans' nursing home in Lake City.

$4.5-million for beach restoration off Indian Shores in Pinellas County.

$1.5-million to complete a study of tides and currents in Tampa Bay