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  1. Opinion

Halt wetlands permitting changes until public can comment in person | Column

Florida should focus on the pandemic and not force through rash changes in environmental policies, writes Bob Graham.

In this time of crisis and uncertainty, Floridians are depending on state leaders for direction and critical support. Our government should be focused on performing the essential functions that protect Floridians’ health, safety and economic well-being. Nonessential agenda items, especially those that have a significant impact on the future of Florida’s environment, should be postponed.

Comprising more than 80 conservation-minded organizations, the Florida Conservation Coalition believes the issue of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s assumption of the federal wetlands permitting (404) program is exactly the type of unnecessary item that should not move forward.

After growing public concern for the environment and the condition of our nation’s waters and lands led to the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the expectation was that our leaders understood the value of our natural resources and would act accordingly to protect them. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s move toward state assumption of the act’s Section 404 program without proper public input is proof that this is not the case.

The state’s assumption of the Section 404 program would remove the Army Corps of Engineers from reviewing an indeterminable number of projects that may dredge or fill in tens of thousands of acres of wetlands throughout Florida. Wetlands are critical to cleansing water, recharging groundwater, providing wildlife habitat and maintaining a natural infrastructure that helps store flood waters and provides resiliency in storm events. In the face of increased development statewide, the protection and restoration of Florida’s wetlands and water resources must be given the greatest possible attention.

Considering what is at stake, the Department of Environmental Protection should cease moving forward with the vetting process while COVID-19 continues to threaten our state. Public participation is central to governing in Florida, and at a time when Florida citizens are rightly focused on survival, the state should be sensitive and flexible in postponing the stakeholder process.

Despite multiple requests from the environmental advocacy community for a postponed stakeholder process, the department has replaced in-person public hearings with online webinars and extended the deadline only to last Thursday. The unnecessary fast-tracking of public comment and elimination of public hearings on this issue of critical importance is of great concern.

To proceed with Section 404 assumption at a time when the public cannot meaningfully participate is exclusionary; the decision is a threat to our democracy, which thrives on the ability of citizens to interact directly with their government and ensure the government responds to their concerns.

The threat of COVID-19 has Floridians across the state struggling to protect their families from contracting a deadly virus, while contending with the burdens of reduced services, short supplies of basic household necessities and the loss of income and economic stability.

There is too much uncertainty surrounding these issues for the state to ensure that it will be practicable for most members of the public to submit formal comments. While I support observance of social distancing, webinars are no substitute for public hearings. Webinars may be helpful when paired with public hearings, providing access for those unable to travel who have the technical ability to do so, but they are not and will never be equivalent.

As a former U.S. senator, Florida governor and member of both houses of the Florida Legislature, I recognize public engagement as an essential part of our democratic process. One of the biggest roadblocks to participatory democracy is the perception that everyday Americans cannot influence government policy, and that only the privileged and special interests can command the levers of power or change bureaucracies. By moving forward with the 404 Assumption process now, the department will thereby turn this perception into a reality.

Now more than ever, we need leaders who are willing to commit to the right decisions that protect the environment, the public and our democracy. The department should halt the entire stakeholder process for State 404 assumption until it can provide for true public participation.

Bob Graham served as Florida’s governor from 1979 to 1987 and as U.S. senator from 1987 to 2005.

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