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Pulp nonfiction

The story line sounds like something right out of a Carl Hiaasen novel, except that David Struhs has beaten the irreverent Florida author to the punch. It goes like this: Florida's top environmental regulator helps bail out a major pulp mill that is pouring gunk into Panhandle waters and then sneaks off to Memphis to become the company's vice president.

This one, though, is all too real.

Struhs announced his departure Wednesday through a press release, declining to answer questions and leaving Gov. Jeb Bush with the job of keeping a straight face. "It's not a conflict," the governor insisted. "Why would it be a conflict?"

The governor's puzzlement provides a measure of comic relief to this woeful tale. Struhs was almost single-handedly responsible for a $56-million government loan that will build a pipeline and sewer plant to help International Paper Co., the world's largest paper producer, clean up the dirty water its pulp mill has been dumping into a creek that leads to Perdido Bay. As Department of Environmental Protection secretary, Struhs allowed the company to continue its discharges, and he doggedly pursued the Escambia County Utilities Authority to take part in the cleanup. One skeptical authority member says Struhs called him personally and was "pushing this project a little hard."

In a matter of weeks, Struhs will be on the International Paper payroll. Yes, governor, this looks bad.

Struhs has been a bit of puzzle since first taking the job in 1999. He stamped DEP with the slogan "More Protection, Less Process," and he generally condemned the notion that regulations are the way to reduce pollution.

Struhs undermined an attempt by the federal government to sue Tampa Electric Co. for clean-air law violations. He reneged on a promise to block a new cement plant on the Ichetucknee River. He set lax cleanup standards for phosphate companies. And he helped sugar growers delay strict pollution standards in the Everglades. But Struhs also increased environmental fines by 20 percent, stood behind the state's conservation lands purchase programs, fought neighboring states for waterway protections and was responsible for getting an $8-billion Everglades cleanup under way.

That Struhs may be remembered most for his villainous exit is his own fault. His new employer says he will handle environmental issues throughout the globe and is unlikely to deal with the Florida pulp mill. But DEP, if it is to claim any remaining shred of credibility, can never allow pulp dealer Struhs to associate with state regulators. And if the governor truly can't see the problem here, then his appointment of a successor may leave Florida's environmental agency no better off.

This is a twisted tale of International intrigue, one that would be much more entertaining if it were merely fiction.