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Legendary Hillsborough environmental chief Roger Stewart dies at 89

Roger Stewart was surprised by his staff at the EPC with an ice cream social for his retirement.  Stewart was the executive director of the Environmental Protection Commission for 32 years.
Roger Stewart was surprised by his staff at the EPC with an ice cream social for his retirement. Stewart was the executive director of the Environmental Protection Commission for 32 years.
Published Aug. 22, 2014

TAMPA — He incensed real estate developers. He poured fuel on a flickering local green movement. He directed national TV cameras to sewage spills in Tampa Bay and then took the heat from hometown politicians.

Roger P. Stewart, an Air Force pilot-turned-environmentalist, kept Hills­borough County elected officials on edge for three decades in a hard-fought battle to put natural resources over profit.

He died Thursday at 89, leaving behind a community that many say is cleaner for his efforts.

"Where's this guy coming from?" former Hillsborough County Commissioner Betty Castor recalls her colleagues asking in the 1970s, after Mr. Stewart started on a path that led him to direct the county's Environmental Protection Commission.

" 'He wants to protect the lakes? He's saying things about zoning. He doesn't have any right in these issues.' "

In the years that followed, Mr. Stewart became a foe of electric companies, phosphate mines and real estate developers in his quest to save the region's air, water and wetlands.

"He was an ardent environmental protector and advocate for clean water and clean air," said Rick Garrity, who succeeded him as executive director. "He spoke very clearly and plainly, and he was not shy about speaking strongly."

The EPC was created in 1967 as part of the Health Department and later spun off with Mr. Stewart, a biologist, as its head.

By 1970, he had begun shaming the establishment into changing its ways. He led the cleanup of the bay, became a champion of rules protecting wetlands and forced powerful companies like Tampa Electric to reduce air pollution.

The timing was critical. Hillsborough County's population was skyrocketing. Overflow from gypsum stacks, produced by fertilizer production, was spilling into the bay, already polluted by sewage and stormwater runoff.

Jan Platt, later elected to the Tampa City Council and Hillsborough County Commission, recalls turning to Mr. Stewart in 1972 to thwart plans by Pinellas County to dump barely treated sewage into waters shared by Wai Lani, a Girl Scouts camp in Palm Harbor.

Under pressure, the county ultimately created what Platt believes is the area's first reclaimed water project.

"His impact was beyond Hills­borough County's borders," she said. "He'd help out wherever he was needed."

Castor, who has held local and statewide office, oversaw Mr. Stewart's agency as EPC chairwoman in her days as a county commissioner. She ranks him among the Florida west coast's strongest environmental figures, calling him a catalyst for change who influenced and galvanized others, sometimes to the chagrin of her colleagues on the board.

She took his side in 1974, when the County Commission voted to fire him for insubordination in the aftermath of an interview with CBS's 60 Minutes.

He told correspondent Mike Wallace about an apartment complex that routinely dumped sewage into the bay.

His firing provoked an outcry from the Tampa Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and others.

"Roger, why are you so stiff-necked?" Wallace asked in a follow-up segment on 60 Minutes, according to a transcript from CBS News. "Why couldn't you compromise with them?"

"Somebody has to be the purist in the environmental business," Mr. Stewart responded.

Builders applauded his firing — among them, the late real estate developer Claude Logan, who in 1974 likened Mr. Stewart's dedication to that of Adolf Hitler.

"I'm just trying to point out that I don't admire the results that are obtained by either person," the developer told commissioners, according to the transcript.

"I feel that if the wishes of this man were followed, that most of us in construction, many of us, would be out looking for new jobs, as he is this morning."

But in a matter of months, Mr. Stewart had his old job back. A lawyer hired by commissioners advised they had acted illegally.

Mr. Stewart, meanwhile, had become a hero among defenders of the environment.

Richard Stewart of Valrico, one of 11 children, recalls getting star treatment from a high school administrator who approved.

The son grew up to become a builder who built a home for the Stewarts but balked at his father's request for a composting toilet.

He says his father taught him how to be a good leader.

"He told me you can't make somebody do something you want done," the son said. "The key is to convince them that they want to do it, and then your job is done."

Mr. Stewart grew up on a farm in the New York-New Jersey area, according to an official biography. He served in World War II and retired as an Air Force major at age 39, before crusading on behalf of the environment as a college freshman in the 1960s.

He earned a zoology degree from the University of South Florida and joined Hillsborough County's Health Department.

He left the job in 2000 at age 74. He said retirement would give him more time to spend with his wife. He was married three times.

He died at home in Plant City under hospice care after complications from a minor stroke suffered about a month ago, Richard Stewart said.

The National Cremation Society in Clearwater is handling arrangements.

Times staff writer Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report.