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Plan to test Tomahawk missiles over Florida is delayed

Gov. Lawton Chiles said Thursday he has reached an agreement with the U.S. Navy that delays a final decision on testing Tomahawk cruise missiles over 21 Florida counties. Chiles said many questions remain on the Navy's plans to test the unarmed missiles that would be launched from warships in the Atlantic off St. Augustine to a target at Eglin Air Force Base.

The Navy hopes to win approval for its plan as a cost-saving measure because its Atlantic-based submarines and surface ships could avoid the expensive trip around the Florida Peninsula.

"We have some concerns now about air traffic safety, whether we've taken care of everything we need to about that and looking at some other decisions in regard to that route," said Chiles, who sought a two-week delay.

"We were hearing some from people who felt like "Hey, I just picked up the paper and found out about this,'

" he said.

Chiles' recommendation is among the data considered by the final arbiter, the Federal Aviation Administration.

"We haven't even received a proposal," said Walt Denley, traffic management supervisor for the FAA's southern region that is responsible for Florida airspace. "We're waiting for all the details to be worked out."

The governor's office released some preliminary findings Thursday.

"Initially, there appears to be little environmental impact resulting from the overflights," said spokeswoman Julie Anbender, who said the state's chief objective is safeguarding civilian air traffic.

That subject, she said, would be central in the discussions during the extended review period.

Navy Representatives also will participate in an unspecified number of hearings to be conducted in the next two weeks on the testing proposal.

About 100 people attended the only briefing so far, an invitation-only affair conducted May 3 by the Navy, which has proposed six test firings annually across the 20-mile-wide corridor.

Under its plan, the missile would fly over Duval, St. Johns, Clay, Bradford, Union, Alachua, Columbia, Suwannee, Gilchrist, Lafayette, Dixie and Taylor counties before going over the Gulf of Mexico.

The Tomahawk would come back over land at Franklin County and continue over Gulf, Wakulla, Leon, Liberty Calhoun, Bay, Washington and Walton counties before parachuting to a landing at Eglin.