DEP chief will join company he helped

Published Jan. 29, 2004|Updated Aug. 27, 2005

After five turbulent years as Florida's top environmental regulator, David Struhs resigned Wednesday, announcing he would take a job with a company regulated by his agency.

When he leaves his post next month, Struhs will become vice president for environmental affairs for International Paper, which owns a pulp mill in Pensacola that has benefited from Struhs' personal intervention in a pollution case.

During his tenure as secretary, the Department of Environmental Protection has launched an ambitious $8-billion restoration of the Everglades, acquired thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land and focused new attention on preserving the state's sparkling springs.

"Together, we have made great strides in environmental protection," Struhs, 43, wrote in his resignation letter to Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush said he would miss Struhs, whom he called "extraordinary." Struhs did not return calls Wednesday.

But under Struh's direction, the DEP also has struck controversial deals with industrial polluters _ including one with his new employer that involved directing public loan money to a project for handling waste from International Paper's Pensacola mill.

"I think he's moving to exactly the place where he belongs," said Frank Jackalone, head of the Florida office of the Sierra Club, which sought Struhs' resignation last year. "He's much more suited to work in the private sector than at a public agency because his major sympathies lie with industry."

Struhs, a Harvard graduate with a boyish grin who oversaw environmental issues for the White House during the first Bush administration, was picked to lead Florida's DEP by newly elected Gov. Bush in 1999. At the time, Struhs held a similar post in Massachusetts.

Struhs first made a splash in Florida when he and the governor canoed the rippling waters of the Ichetucknee River, where a politically powerful company wanted to build a cement plant. Along the way, the governor sought opinions on the project, which most people opposed as a threat to air and water.

Soon after the canoe trip, Struhs said he would not issue a permit for the plant because the company was an affiliate of road-paving giant Anderson Columbia, which had a history of violating environmental rules.

Anderson Columbia sued. So Struhs cut a closed-door deal that gave a permit to the plant, with strict reporting requirements on the plant's emissions, and settled the company's outstanding pollution violations. He said the deal "does more to protect Florida's environment than we ever would have won in court," but environmentalists complained he sold out.

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sued Tampa Electric Co. for violating the Clean Air Act, Struhs stepped in and cut a deal with TECO that infuriated the EPA and the Justice Department. Federal officials said Struhs' deal failed to cut enough of the utility's pollution emissions and didn't impose fines.

Struhs' work on Everglades restoration brought international headlines when Congress approved the complex project. But he was again the target of criticism last year when the Legislature, pushed by a squad of sugar company lobbyists, extended the deadline for cleaning up phosphorous pollution in the River of Grass by another decade.

Struhs' defense of the Everglades pollution extension, which included arguing that opponents of the change were simply confused about the law, so angered the Sierra Club and some smaller environmental groups that they publicly called for his resignation. Notably, Audubon of Florida did not join them.

Running DEP is "probably the most difficult job in state government," said Eric Draper of Audubon. "There's a few places he's stumbled and a few places he's performed really well."

One of the longest running controversies during Struhs' leadership of DEP has involved the Pensacola mill that International Paper, the world's largest paper company, acquired in 2000. Built in 1941, the plant has for decades dumped its waste into nearby Eleven Mile Creek, one of the most polluted waterways in Florida.

The creek empties into Perdido Bay, which straddles the Florida/Alabama state line. Activists from the Clean Water Network have sued the company to try to stop the dumping.

DEP took a different approach.

Under Struhs, the DEP agreed to lend $56-million to a public utility in Pensacola at below-market interest rates to build a treatment plant and pipeline that would primarily be used to redirect International Paper's waste.

Such loans, which use federal tax dollars supplied by the EPA, are supposed to go to public utilities, not to a private company, contended Linda Young of the Clean Water Network.

So DEP persuaded the Escambia County Utilities Authority to apply for the loan with the promise that International Paper would repay 80 percent of it. When the authority balked at taking on 20 years of loan payments with no assurance International Paper would be around long enough to pay its share, Struhs called the authority's hesitance "a source of frustration."

One of the authority members who was skeptical of the deal, Dale Perkins, said DEP was "pushing it pretty hard" and Struhs called to "talk about the benefits of the project."

The pressure worked. The authority wound up agreeing to the deal, even though local activists say they don't believe it will help clean up the creek or Perdido Bay.

Jackie Lane, who in October led her group Friends of Perdido Bay in picketing the Pensacola DEP office to protest the deal, said she was not surprised Struhs is going to work for the company.

"There's a real coziness between the regulators and the regulated companies," she said.

Bush said he saw no conflict in Struh's job with International Paper. "They need help," he said. "That's why David Struhs will be great."

International Paper spokeswoman Jenny Boardman brushed aside questions of whether Struhs' job was a result of his regulation of the company.

"He was the best qualified candidate," she said. "And we would not have chosen anyone that we did not believe wouldn't have han-dled himself ethically as environ-mental protection secretary."

Struhs recused himself from further decisions on the project in October, telling his staff he was negotiating with International Paper for a job.

In a letter Wednesday to the DEP staff, Struhs said he was "excited about joining a company that is one of the world's largest landowners, has operations in more than 40 countries, is a leader in addressing issues such as climate change, biodiversity and environmental restoration, and has a business plan based on the sustainability of natural resources."

_ Times staff writer Alisa Ulferts and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.


Old job: Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, 1999 to 2004, with an annual salary of $122,017.

New job: Vice president of environmental affairs for International Paper in Memphis office.

Education: Master's in public administration from Harvard University. Bachelor's degrees in journalism and political science from Indiana University.

Background: On the regional management team of EPA Boston office. Chief of staff of the Council for Environmental Quality under former President George Bush. Vice president of Canyon Group energy consulting firm in California. Secretary, Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

Personal: Wife, Sara, who works for the state, is the sister of Andrew Card, chief of staff for President Bush.