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DER asks veto of bill it pushed to pass

State environmental officials have advised Gov. Lawton Chiles to kill one of the bills they pushed hardest during this year's Legislature. The reason: An amendment to the bill in the session's final days that could grant state cleanup money to dozens of petroleum dealers who allegedly violated pollution rules, including Rep. Chuck Smith, D-Brooksville.

Legislators tacked the amendment onto a bill that included several top priorities for the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation (DER). One of the bill's sections provides for a fee increase worth more than $4-million to the agency.

Nevertheless, agency officials this week advised Chiles to veto the bill rather than accept the amendment. Oil jobbers who commit major pollution rule violations shouldn't get free cleanups, they concluded.

"We're giving up a lot," said Nikki Clark, director of legislation for DER. "(But) the department is sending a message that we don't think this is very good policy," she said.

Chiles' chief of staff, Jim Krog, said his office is "looking at the bill very closely." Chiles must decide by Friday whether to veto the bill, sign it or allow it to become law without his signature.

The amendment would allow Smith and the other oil jobbers to participate in a state program that would pay for cleanup of underground petroleum pollution at their businesses. The petroleum usually has leaked from storage tanks or pipes, often over periods of years.

Smith and the other jobbers have been rejected from the program because state inspectors found that they were in violation of state pollution rules at their businesses.

The amendment would allow DER to include those jobbers in the program if they are making a "good-faith effort" to comply with the rules.

Without the amendment, the jobbers would have to pay for the cleanup themselves, environmental regulators say. Such cleanups typically cost upwards of $200,000.

Smith, who originally proposed similar changes, said he was disappointed by DER Secretary Carol Browner's recommendation.

"I've read the secretary's (recommendation), and my personal opinion is that she needs to go back and read the legislation again, because I think her analysis is erroneous," Smith said.

In Smith's case, DER inspectors said he failed to install protective concrete underneath his above-ground storage tanks. The agency has proposed a settlement that would require Smith to pay a $6,550 fine.

Smith downplayed the bill's impact on his own case.

"I can assure you that has been overstated from day one, and it would be an overstatement if you printed it again," Smith said.

The St. Petersburg Times first reported the legislation's potential impact on Smith in March. After that, Smith announced that he would no longer vote on the measure.

DER officials said Tuesday that they believe the measure could have a big impact on Smith.

"Some of the things in that bill we just can't live with, and by coincidence, most of those things apply to him," said Bill Truman, who oversees eligibility for the program for DER.

Originally, the measure was contained in a separate bill that the agency did not support. For weeks, that bill appeared headed for defeat. But the day before the 1991 session ended, the measure was added as an amendment to the DER-backed bill.

The measure was one of several that were added to the bill on the day it passed. The bill became a "train," a term used in the Legislature for bills that are loaded up with amendments just before they pass.

Sen. George Kirkpatrick, D-Gainesville, one of the bill's original sponsors, donned a railroad engineer's cap to guide it through final passage in the Senate. Someone else blew a whistle.

Among the measures added was one creating a state pollution prevention council composed of the heads of a number of state agencies. Measures also were added relating to the severance tax on phosphate, expansions of sports stadiums and contaminated water wells.

DER officials stopped short of saying legislators tricked them by adding the petroleum cleanup measure to the agency's bill. Clark said the agency did not have an opportunity to review the measure's full impact, however.

"In those last days, things happen pretty fast," she said.