The resignation of Florida’s top environmental officer, David Struhs—who left to take a big corporate job with International Paper—provoked commentary across the state in various tones and decibels.
Struhs, a loyalist if there ever were one, departed on a wave of Jeb Bush’s good will. Unlike his brother’s former Treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, whose frank testimony peeled the facade from the George W. Bush White House, Struhs maintained a poker face to the very end.
His letter to Florida Department of Environmental Protection staff, announcing his resignation, reads like a hymn—touting great accomplishments on the way to a better environmental future for Florida—but resonates more as a sermon than a truthful dialogue.
Struhs, like his boss the governor, never tolerated two-way conversations very well. Nor did criticism, however well-founded, ever deter a decision-making process that bears the unmistakable imprint of pre-determined outcomes.
In his letter, Struhs claims, “Florida’s air is cleaner, and our land and water are better protected than it was five years ago.” He might have added that his action to re-define pollution and then to re-list what Florida waters are “impaired” means that declaring victory on the environment is pretty much as easy as running a banner up a flagpole.
Struhs writes, “A new marine sanctuary protects the Florida Keys” and “Everglades restoration is ahead of schedule and under budget.” Tell that to the dive-shop owners in the Florida Keys, whose business is dwindling as a result of decimated coral reefs. The reef and the Everglades both reflect the fine pitch of creative accounting.
But of the points Struhs raises in his farewell, one deserves special attention; really a statement more than a claim—“Florida springs serve not just as a window into our vast aquifer, but as a new organizing principle for a more seamless, integrated organization.”
Struhs understands that in Florida, the integration of surface water, groundwater and deep-water aquifers is indeed seamless, but to suggest that our environmental agency is in concert with this model is false.
The window view of Florida’s springs and aquifers shows the failed policies of the Bush administration; we can thank Struhs for suggesting how Florida’s springs lead us to the subterranean, back-room deal-making in Tallahassee that puts the future of our water-resource-based economy at risk.
As reported recently in the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel, a new independent science report shows vast amounts of nitrogen are being transported through groundwater running from sugar lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area, more than 18 miles from the coast, and sluicing up through the porous caverns and pathways underground to emerge on the coral reef.
The article indicates that the volume of nitrogen, yearly, hitting the coral reef from the EAA is “2.5 million times the nitrogen content of a 50-pound bag of 10-10-10 lawn fertilizer.” That 2.5 million times is roughly equivalent to the political weight of a few sugar barons compared to the rest of Florida’s voters.
In the case of the Everglades, Struhs will be remembered forever as Gov. Bush’s messenger who misrepresented to the Florida Legislature that the federal government, headed by President Bush, approved the amendment to the Everglades Forever Act, dubbed by environmentalists as the “Everglades Whenever Act,” which rewrote the law to extend pollution of the Everglades by at least a decade.
Florida will never have the chance to ask Struhs why his agency dragged its feet on issues related to science and research of key questions that remain unanswered—like, for instance, the effects of nitrogen from sugar lands on Florida’s estuaries and bays and rivers, or billions of gallons of scarcely treated wastewater leaking upward toward Florida’s sources of drinking water and surface waters.
Only a few weeks ago, the governor’s office failed to send a representative to the recent Everglades Coalition meeting in Miami. When asked why, a spokesperson answered, “We prefer results, not rhetoric.”
Never has meaning counted for so little. Why, Florida? Is it because voters can’t count, or because voters are accustomed to not being counted, or, in a season of uncertainty, voters are scared witless?
In the New York Times recently, Paul Krugman wrote, “As far as I can tell, nobody in the Bush administration has ever paid a price for being wrong.” He was referring, of course, to the president and not his brother, our governor. Being wrong has as much to do with that which one chooses not to do as that which one does wrongly. We’d like to ask Struhs, whose brother-in-law is the president’s chief of staff, to comment: If the state of Florida allows pollution targets to creep, where will the creeping stop? If the state of Florida fails to invest in science to demonstrate how aquifers are contaminated, who will be held accountable when pollution rises to the surface? But as circumstances would have it, Struhs is out the door.