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Rave reviews for DER's Carol Browner

In little more than a year, Carol Browner has stood up to the sugar industry, backed down the oil companies, tangled with a paper mill, fought the Bush administration, held off the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, rejected a hazardous waste facility, and showed Florida she's got heart.

Browner, a former environmental policy director to U.S. Sens. Lawton Chiles and Al Gore, was picked by Gov. Chiles in January 1991 to head the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation (DER). She had never run an administrative agency, and had been away from Florida for seven years. Some people thought she might not be tough enough, that her lack of agency experience would make her a pushover for developers and industry. But Browner, a Miami native and a lawyer with a remarkable zeal for environmental issues, has proved them wrong. In just 13 months, she has taken over a troubled agency and a threatened ecology and given both of them some new life.

The reviews are rave.

"Her personal commitment and sensitivity to the environment are on a level that exceeds anything that any other secretary has held," says Charles Lee, senior vice president of the Florida Audubon Society. "And in her recommendations at DER, that sensitivity has shined through."

"Overall, I think she's interjected a marvelous new sense of direction for the department," says Gloria Rains, director of ManaSota 88 and a leading critic of past DER policies. "I'm very pleased with her awareness of wetlands issues."

"I think the staff there feels they have a secretary who is dedicated to environmental issues and is very actively engaged," says Victoria Tschinkel, who was DER secretary for six years prior to the Bob Martinez administration. "What you see is a secretary who is trying to get out in front of the environmental issues."

Browner had an easy act to follow. Under the previous secretary, civil engineer Dale Twachtmann, DER was demoralized and debilitated. Staff was cut, the mission was defined in terms of developers and engineers, and Twachtmann often fought more stringent regulation or law. The record at DER was so bad that the Florida League of Conservation Voters refused to endorse Martinez for re-election even in his own party's primary.

For Browner, the first order of business was to try to restore the department's credibility. She sought the advice of environmental groups, freed up her own staff biologists to render professional opinions, asked the governor to appoint new members to the rule-making Environmental Regulation Commission, and began taking on all comers.

In the Everglades, Browner and DER general counsel Dan Thompson were able to get the state out of a costly lawsuit by admitting the park is being contaminated and accepting state blame; the two, along with Chiles, then took on the powerful sugar industry in trying to find a solution.

In her first legislative session, Browner fought the oil industry on a bill that bailed out gas station owners who allowed tanks to leak into the ground water; though the governor ultimately overruled her veto recommendation, she is back this year, with statistics, studies and a forceful case for why the state has to quit subsidizing gas tank polluters. In federal wetlands policy, she traveled to Washington to protest adoption of a weakened national standard; the proposed Bush regulations, she said, would have exempted even part of the Florida Everglades. In agency enforcement, she turned up the heat on developers on polluters; her department last year increased the rate of enforcement cases by 15 percent and doubled the total amount of penalties awarded to the state.

The regulatory and policy contrasts with Twachtmann are obvious, but more subtle is the renewed environmental ethic among people who work in the department. DER is an agency made up of biologists and people who come to work largely because they are driven to do something good for the Earth. General counsel Thompson, who has worked for three secretaries, says Browner "has been prepared to take on some very powerful interests" and calls her manner "inspirational." Another staff member says: "We know with Carol we simply follow the science and follow our conscience."

In an administration that has had a tough first year, Browner is indeed a bright spot. If this is to be the new conscience of environmental protection in Florida, then maybe it has a chance.

Jon East is an editorial writer for the St. Petersburg Times.