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Coalition calls for DEP investigation

A new coalition in the Florida Panhandle wants Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Virginia Wetherell fired and an independent prosecutor appointed to investigate her agency.

The coalition of 10 environmental groups, called Northwest Florida RESTORE, asked Gov. Lawton Chiles to take those actions in response to accusations DEP has failed to enforce environmental laws that affect developers and other businesses.

Coalition leaders said they came together in an effort to restore credibility and public support for the DEP. The first step, they said, would be to replace the agency's present administration, starting with Wetherell and DEP regional director Bobby Cooley in Pensacola.

"It's part of an effort by some people to harass Bobby Cooley and Virginia Wetherell," Perry Odom, the department's general counsel in Tallahassee, said. "Some people make it their life's work to harass the agency."

Tom Garner, who coordinated the consolidation effort, said the group sent a letter to Chiles this week supporting his decision to ask the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to look into accusations DEP's top management is undermining laws intended to safeguard the environment.

Garner said Wetherell should be ousted because environmentalists have been complaining for years about the same sort of things FDLE is investigating, and nothing has been done.

Investigators last month determined that three Pensacola-area cases merit investigation.

Since then, state prosecutors have asked the FDLE also to look into complaints the environmental agency is violating open records laws by requiring members of the public to hand over their driver's licenses while examining files in its Pensacola office.