How An Angry Judge Saved The Everglades

How An Angry Judge Saved The Everglades

Politicians in both parties have resumed rhapsodizing about the magnificence of the Everglades, a phenomenon that occurs every four years with varying degrees of sincerity.

Polls show that most Floridians want the Everglades restored and preserved. This requires candidates to show some love. Neither Democrats nor Republicans want to look like obstructionists on this issue in an election year.

That’s one reason why the Obama administration and the state have reached an agreement tentatively resolving 20 years’ worth of lawsuits that have hobbled efforts to clean the polluted water being pumped into the Everglades.

It’s true that under Obama, funding for Everglades restoration is way up from the Bush years. It’s also true that Gov. Rick Scott pushed for the recent settlement with Washington, which should restart some projects that will help the cleanup.

However, the semi-miraculous truce between Florida and the feds wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for a fellow named Alan Gold. He’s a U.S. district judge in Miami who got so fed up with the stalling of both sides that he gave them a glorious reaming two years ago.

You couldn’t blame the man for being ticked off.

Gold was presiding over drawn-out litigation that was holding up some of the Everglades projects. The Miccosukee tribe had sued because phosphorus pollution from farms, ranches and subdivisions was being flushed into the reservation.

In the summer of 2008, Gold had ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection to start enforcing clean-water standards that had been set to take effect back in 2006.

But in the face of heavy lobbying, the feds and the state decided on a 10-year extension — a nice break for the polluters. That didn’t sit well with the Miccosukees, most environmental groups or the judge.

In 2010, Gold issued a ruling that scalded the EPA and the DEP for showing “glacial slowness” in cleaning up the flow into Everglades. He characterized the restoration plan as “rudderless.”

“The hard reality,” he wrote, “is that ongoing destruction due to pollution within the Everglades Protection Area continues to this day at an alarming rate.”

Here’s what else Gold did, which got all sides scrambling:

He threatened to hold state and federal administrators in civil contempt if they didn’t comply with the court. Then he ordered the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to personally appear in front of him and answer some questions.

This is why you never, ever want to piss off a federal judge.

A month before her hearing date, EPA chief Lisa Jackson said she needed to fly to China. She offered to send another official to Miami in her place, but Gold said no. Jackson appealed and got an emergency stay.

That’s how desperately she wanted to avoid Gold’s courtroom.

Ever since then, the EPA and environmental regulators in Florida have been toiling over a compliance plan that would satisfy the judge and save them further humiliation. On July 12, Gold approved a settlement that should trigger about $880 million worth of cleanup projects designed to reduce nutrient levels in agricultural waters feeding the Everglades.

The next day, the Obama administration announced it will pay $80 million to farmers and ranchers for conservation easements on about 23,000 acres in the northern Everglades, protecting key wetlands from development.

All this is encouraging, but turning cartwheels is premature. Restoration is an extremely complex and expensive project with multiple layers of exasperating bureaucracy.

The commitment of Gov. Scott has yet to be tested, but his gator-skin boots send a disquieting message. So far, Mitt Romney hasn’t uttered a peep about continuing Everglades funding if he wins the White House, but he’ll come up with a sound bite between now and November.

However the political prospects for the Everglades might change after the election, let’s hope Alan Gold will still be on the bench trying to make sure the clean-water laws are obeyed. It’s a titanic challenge in South Florida, and he isn’t the only judge with an important role.

In another case, U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno has told state officials they must do more to clean up the runoff being sent into the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge.

Neither Gold nor Moreno are radical, firebrand jurists. Nor was William Hoeveler, the senior district judge who for years steadfastly fought to make Big Sugar clean up its mess.

These guys didn’t write the pollution laws, or the lawsuits. They got jurisdiction, period. To preside over these cases is to have your patience, if not your sanity, pushed to the limit.

But without judges who are willing to yank a federal agency chief or even a governor into court, what remains of the Everglades has no chance of rebounding. To leave its fate in the hands of Tallahassee and Washington would be a death sentence.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

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