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"Conceptual' dredging

DEP Secretary David Struhs owes Floridians a better explanation on the department's turnabout on its position on a Tampa Bay dredging project, whose "concept" it now endorses.

Port Manatee wants to dig up 88 acres of Tampa Bay, the largest dredging project in three decades, and the state's environmental regulator has taken a curious turn. Only months after saying it would deny the project, the Department of Environmental Protection is now endorsing the "concept" and, in so doing, putting the State Cabinet in a bind.

On Thursday, the Cabinet is being asked to hand over state-owned submerged land to be dredged, even as DEP acknowledges that serious environmental questions are unanswered. As Lauren Milligan of the DEP's Bureau of Beaches and Coast Systems, put it: "This gives them the assurance that we approve the concept, but it doesn't give them the assurance that they can construct it."

What assurance does any of this give to the public?

The Port Authority's effort is not new. It has been trying to get approval for port expansion and dredging for five years, and it can be commended for its extraordinary plans to mitigate the environmental damage _ to replace the rich seagrass beds and marine habitat it would destroy. But the core question, about whether there is a viable alternative to the massive turning basin that port officials want to dig, has still not been resolved.

Of note, most of the state's own scientists are rejecting the project. The National Marine Fisheries Commission, the Tampa Bay Estuary Program and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission have opposed it. Within DEP itself, staff scientists in marine science and aquatic preserves have opposed it, and the southwest district's top administrator, Richard Garrity, has questioned it. In April, port managers were notified that DEP was about to draft a notice that it would deny the project.

DEP Secretary David Struhs, however, has changed the regulatory course. In late July, DEP said it would approve the project "in concept."

Struhs owes Floridians a better explanation for why he has rejected the advice of his own scientists, and he would be well served to explore the recent history of Tampa Bay. In the past three decades, the bay has been the focus of intensive restoration efforts. Cities have invested tens of millions of dollars in upgrading sewage plants and diverting poorly treated effluent from the bay. Various portions of the bay have been officially designated as aquatic preserves in an attempt to protect them from further development harm. A 1994 survey conducted by the National Estuary Program estimated that local, state and federal governments are spending $250-million a year to protect and restore the bay.

The port may be able to make an environmentally acceptable case for expansion and for dredging, but it has not done so to date. Now the Cabinet is being drawn into the debate prematurely, in ways that put elected Cabinet members in a difficult position. Do they ignore the advice of the state's own staff scientists? Do they give up the submerged land, not knowing the impact, not knowing if the project is even environmentally permissible?

To borrow a DEP term, the "concept" here is a bad one.