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Earthjustice Antidote to Seagrass 'Poison Pill'

Earthjustice's Florida team has saved the state's seagrasses and fishing grounds from a legislative poison pill. David Guest, managing attorney of the Florida office, tells this tale of midnight chicanery...

The bill in the Florida Legislature seemed like a good thing: For the first time, Florida would impose fines on boaters who carelessly trashed seagrass beds in the state's protected aquatic preserves. The underwater marine nursery grounds can get chewed up by boat propellers, and the damage can last for decades.

But developer lobbyists put a poison pill in the seagrass protection bill, late one evening at a legislative committee meeting in Tallahassee. Earthjustice Florida lobbyist Sue Mullins alerted me and we began immediately pushing to get Governor Charlie Crist to veto the bill.

The poison pill set up a faux seagrass mitigation program that had previously failed repeatedly. That's why the mitigation provision went into the bill with absolutely no discussion. We notified our friends in the press. St. Petersburg Times reporter Craig Pittman ordered a videotape of the April 15 four-hour meeting through the state's open records law, and saw that the sponsor of the amendment, Rep. Will Kendrick, R-Carrabelle, "offered a pair of what he said were minor amendments, which were quickly approved without objections, and the bill passed the committee 30-0."

Pittman noted that the amendments allowed companies to sell credits to developers who could use them to destroy seagrass beds along the coast for new marinas or boating channels.

We marshaled our Earthjustice team for the veto push. Mullins and I worked our sources in state government. Earthjustice attorney Monica Reimer researched the bill's implications under Florida law. Earthjustice's Florida media guru Julie Hauserman, a former state environmental reporter, started reaching out to editorial writers. Soon, forceful editorials—calling the bill "sinister," "underhanded," and "polluted"—appeared in papers all over the state, asking the governor to veto the seagrass bill. Treasure Coast newspapers, which cover Florida's upper southeast coast, highlighted our opposition in its June 4 editorial:

I wrote: "The stealth amendment that got put in changed it from sea-grass protection bill to a sea-grass destruction bill... It's a license for chicanery, which is why they had to sneak this provision into the bill."

The developers who had pushed the poison pill amendment hired public relations firms to fight back. But their efforts backfired.

A guest editorial speaking in favor of the bill appeared in several papers by a man identified as the leader of a Tampa chapter of an environmental group. We checked his background, then quickly alerted all the state's environmental and editorial writers that the man actually was a partner in a for-profit wetland mitigation firm!

June 9 was a great day for us. A reporter asked Gov. Crist if he planned to veto the seagrass bill, since so many were urging him to. To our relief, the governor said yes, he would.

Tags:  Oceans, Water