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A chance for Chiles

One of the most important environmental agencies in Florida is also one of the least visible. It's called the Environmental Regulation Commission (ERC), and it has been a captive of industry and agriculture for much of its 16 years of existence. Gov. Lawton Chiles has a chance to change that this month, as he gets to appoint four of the seven members. People who value the natural resources that make Florida special will want to pay close attention.

Though the commission has existed since 1975, when it was created as part of a larger state government environmental reorganization, its work has gone largely unwatched by the public. Its influence, however, is considerable. The commission is made up of seven members appointed by the governor, and it is responsible for a wide range of rules that govern development, pollution and environmental destruction.

For example, when developers complained four years ago that the state was too tough on construction in wetlands, the commission took up the task. Behind the urging of former Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) Secretary Dale Twachtmann, the commission weakened the protection given to wetlands. As a result, the state began letting developers tear up productive swamps without having to prove there were no reasonable alternatives.

Over the past four years, the commission has been populated largely by developers, business people and farmers. The membership has included: an Orlando home builder, a Tallahassee real estate developer, a Sarasota citrus executive, a West Palm Beach developer, a Live Oak banker and a development attorney. While jobs don't necessarily reveal a person's environmental philosophy, the commission appointed by former Gov. Bob Martinez has been far from an ecological trailblazer.

In recent years, the commission has changed any number of regulations, and in most instances seemed to take its advice directly from industry: Rather than offend developers, it passed an underground drinking water rule that was so flawed it has still not taken effect; it riled even some public water suppliers by allowing industry more latitude with certain contaminants in underground water; it scared public health officials by trying to let farmers spray treated sewage effluent on crops; it listened to the oil industry when deciding not to require maximum protection for underground fuel tanks and then was asked by the state Cabinet to do better; it responded to concern over the dangers from high-voltage lines by allowing the power industry to finance a study.

Unfortunately, the commission has more often found itself aligned with the interests it is supposed to regulate than with the interests of the public.

On July 1, the terms of four commission members _ developer Thomas Sansbury, attorney Ken Wright, banker Joe Williams and civic activist Phyllis Saarinen _ expire. Carol Browner, the DER secretary who has brought a new and sorely needed environmental touch to that agency, will be advising the governor on the new commission appointments. At this point, she says only that: "I think it will be a board that more closely reflects our vision for the environment."

Floridians should take that remark as a hopeful sign. Already, the phosphate and agriculture lobbies are offering candidates for the commission, and others are likely soon to follow. But if Chiles' election campaign meant anything, it meant he owes no special considerations to industry.

For the governor, the ERC appointments represent the same kind of opportunity he faced earlier this year with the South Florida Water Management District. With the water district, Chiles used his authority to send a resounding message about protection of the Everglades and about the vital role water districts must play as guardians of the environment. With the ERC, he can do the same.