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Kissimmee project okayed; Bush blasted on oil drilling

Florida won a major environmental battle when the outgoing Congress approved restoration of the Kissimmee River, but state Democrats blasted President Bush over what they said was failure to protect the Keys from oil drilling.

On Earth Day 1990, Bush flew to Islamorada, surrounded himself with environmentalists and promised good news about oil drilling. He later called for a moratorium on oil and gas drilling until the year 2000, as well as repurchase of leases already granted.

But in last-minute negotiations over the energy bill approved Thursday by the Senate, Energy Secretary James Watkins warned Bush would veto any legislation writing the moratorium or buyback into law.

"Bush speeches collide with Bush substance," said U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., a major backer of the moratorium.

U.S. Rep. Dante Fascell, D-Miami, who represents the Keys, said, "When the rubber met the road, President Bush abandoned southern Florida."

Republican U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, who voted for the bill stripped of the moratorium and lease buyback provision, had fought along with the rest of the Florida delegation for their inclusion, aide Mark Mills said.

A previously approved bill includes a one-year ban on new leases, but Gov. Lawton Chiles said he was frustrated by that approach.

"This unfortunately means that we will have to rely once again upon year-by-year extensions of existing protections," the governor said.

While disappointed with the leasing defeat, Florida officials were thrilled with the approval of the project to restore the Kissimmee River to its meandering ways.

The Army Corps of Engineers is authorized to pay an unprecedented 50 percent of major segments of the $427-million project. The project, which could take 15 years, will restore wetlands drained in the 1970s with the construction of a concrete drainage ditch.

U.S. Rep. Tom Lewis, R-Fla., whose district includes 80 percent of the Kissimmee restoration area, voted against the bill for budgetary reasons but backs the environmental cause, his aide Karen Hogan said. Lewis inserted an amendment to guarantee flood protection for current homeowners, which was his biggest concern, she added.

Chiles' office is still analyzing the bill, but an aide said it appears to be just what the state ordered. The state share is expected to be $287-million.

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