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House zips through approval of environmental permitting overhaul

With head-spinning speed, the Florida House took up and passed a major rewrite of state environmental permitting laws late Friday that Florida conservation groups had warned could be one of the worst environmental bills in decades.

The time spent discussing, amending and voting on the 80-page bill just before the House was scheduled to adjourn at 8 p.m.: 7 minutes.

In that time, lawmakers accepted six amendments that attempt to mitigate environmentalists’ concerns over provisions they had described as a “monstrous threat to the environment.” They added the content of another bill making it easier for ports to dredge to accommodate bulkier ships. And they removed a section that prevented the ability of citizens to challenge environmentally-sensitive projects.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, with the cadence of an auctioneer, then recognized bill sponsor Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, for a brief explanation, accepted no questions or debate, and the House voted 95-16 to send it to the Senate.

The bill streamlines or erases broad portions of environmental permitting, makes it easier for large rock mining projects to begin, allows increased development in wetlands, allows owners of leaking fuel tanks to avoid penalty, and limits the ability of local governments to require state and federal permits be approved before granting local development permits.

“In 30 years of working to protect Florida's unique natural wonders, never have I witnessed such an egregious and blatant dismantling of those protections,’’ said Debra Harrison of the National Parks Conservation Assocation. She said that the bill eliminates 35 regulations intended to protect the environment “under the false pretense of stimulating the economy, when in fact the only economic benefit will be to those special interests who crafted the bill.”

With no discussion, legislators agreed to an amendment by Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, to remove a “burden of proof “ provision that would have blocked citizens from challenging permits that allow developers, mining companies and others to build in environmentally sensitive areas. Environmentalists had considered that provision the most offensive because it shift the burden by no longer requiring companies to show their project woudln’t harm the environment to the public, which would have had to prove the project would cause harm.

Pafford said he was grateful to Patronis for accepting the amendment, but still voted against the bill.

Patronis said that while he had the votes to pass the bill without the concession, he agreed to amend it “because I wanted more concensus with the environmental community and the Democrats in the chamber.”

He also agreed to remove a controversial provision that prevented local governments from regulating rock mining, but left other provisions in. And he won the support of the Miami-Dade legislative delegation by including a requirement that mining along the counthy’s Lake Belt region include a seepage wall to be built to protect ground water.

“The legislation that will still go forward is an incredibly productive streamlining bill,’’ Patronis said. Businesses will have more predictability and it “takes into consideration the environmental community’s concerns.”

But environmentalists say the bill still goes too far. “It’s okay to streamline permitting and to eliminate duplicative permitting but it’s not okay to eliminate the ability of local government to protect land and water resources,’’ said Janet Bowman of the Nature Conservancy. “That’s the story of this session – it’s death by 1,000 cuts and we’re nearing the point where the state will not be able to protect its resources.”

The controversial bill has no companion in the Senate and may face resistance there. Patronis included one sweetener: an amendment that allows port cities to do maintenance dredging and deepen their ports in anticipation of larger ships coming through the Panama Canal. The idea was the substance of a separate bill supported by legislators in port cities like Miami and Tampa and is a high priority of Gov. Rick Scott.

Cannon, R-Winter Park, defended the rush to amend and vote on the permitting, saying that the bulk of the bill had been debated in committee. With one week left of the session, the House had imposed a Friday deadline to send bills to the Senate, he said. “We’re trying to get a lot of bills done.”