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Cleaning up Florida's waters not so easy

The task of cleaning the nation's water is more complicated now that the sources of pollution are no longer obvious, EPA administrator Carol Browner said Tuesday.

"When the rivers caught fire, you could literally go down to the river, you could see the sewage, you could smell it, you could touch it," Browner said. "It was much easier to know what to do then."

But today's pollution problems are not readily apparent, many stemming from runoff, not a pipe funnelling raw sewage.

The struggle to clean the Everglades is a microcosm of the same pollution issues being addressed around the country, Browner told about 375 people attending a meeting of the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches.

"The continued loss of the Everglades threatens our future drinking water supplies, it threatens Florida's $13-billion tourism industry, and the very living standard we all enjoy," said Browner, a Miami native.

"If only the solution were as easy as finding a few sources of pollution and shutting them off," she said.

But it's not.

The EPA recently agreed to review the state's 1994 Everglades Forever Act, which sets water quality standards and lays out plans for a $700-million cleanup using six pollution filtering marshes.

The Miccosukee Indian tribe had sought the review years ago and now says it is too little too late.

Indian nations have a right to set water standards within their tribal lands, Browner said. For the Miccosukees, that means a portion of the Everglades.

The Miccosukees will adopt new water quality standards in December that are expected to be lower than what is mandated in the Everglades Forever Act, Dexter Lehtinen, the tribe's attorney, said Tuesday.

If outside forces are contributing to lower water standards than what the tribe mandates, the tribe could petition for them to step up cleanup _ a move Browner expects, she said Tuesday.

She refused to comment specifically on the investigation into the Everglades Forever Act.

"We have a process, and now we're doing a review," she said after her speech.

A public hearing was scheduled for Nov. 19 in West Palm Beach, and a decision was expected in January.

Browner also refused to comment on the issue of Orimulsion, a controversial tar-based fuel Florida Power & Light Co. wants to burn at a Tampa Bay area plant. She said an ethics officer told her she was not allowed to speak about it because she had prior dealings with the issue as Florida's secretary of environmental regulation, when she opposed testing.