Struhs quits as state DEP chief

Published: Thursday, January 29, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 28, 2004 at 11:45 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - David Struhs, the state's top environmental regulator, announced Wednesday that he is resigning his state job to go to work for a major paper company that has received favorable rulings from his agency.
The departure of Struhs, which had apparently been in the works for months, according to agency officials, took Gov. Jeb Bush by surprise. Struhs, the secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, has been a stalwart in the Bush administration, remaining one of the few top aides who has worked for Bush since he first took office in 1999.
"I found out about it yesterday," Bush told reporters late Wednesday afternoon. "I was surprised. I assumed he was going to stay because I wanted him to."
Struhs, 43, came to Florida after working as the top environmental regulator in Massachusetts. His links to the Bush family date back to 1989 when President George Bush tapped him as the chief of staff for his Council on Environmental Quality. Struhs is married to the sister of Andrew Card, who is the chief of staff for President George W. Bush.
Struhs is resigning his $122,000 a year job at the end of February and will move to Memphis, Tenn., to become executive vice president for environmental affairs for International Paper, a $25 billion-a-year company that is the world's largest paper products company.
Gov. Jeb Bush called him an "extraordinary" agency head, but during his five-year stay Struhs drew the wrath and sometimes the praise of environmental groups. He pushed to deny a permit for a proposed cement plant near the Ichetucknee River in Suwannee County in North Florida, only to help negotiate a deal to reverse the decision months later.
Under Struhs' watch, DEP launched an initiative to try to protect Florida's famed natural springs, and the state began an ambitious Everglades restoration project. But Struhs also advocated the downsizing of the agency and the privatization of jobs, such as those performed at state parks.
Struhs worked out a deal to allow a Palatka paper mill to expand its operations, but also negotiated a plan to cut the air emissions at power plants in the Tampa Bay area. He was unsuccessful in persuading state lawmakers to let DEP deny permits to companies that routinely violate state pollution laws.
Some environmentalists said Wednesday that they were glad to see Struhs go.
They have been unhappy with Struhs for his handling of phosphate mining issues, the controversial dumping of wastewater from a Manatee County fertilizer plant and the failure to act more aggressively to protect waterways such as the Myakka River from pollution.
"That's very good news," said Glenn Compton, head of the environmental group ManaSota-88. "We've had a lot of concerns with David Struhs for a number of years. We look forward to a replacement who is truly concerned about protecting the environment."
A handful of environmentalists in North Florida were equally critical of the secretary's tenure.
"He's been for the commercialization our state parks," said Kathy Cantwell, former president of the local Sierra Club. "There's a Bush behind it," she said of the governor, "but he's been carrying out Bush's order to privatize and commercialize our parks."
Chris Bird, director of the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department, said that while Struhs' efforts to protect state springs deserve praise, his commitment to local programs was questionable.
"The local environmental programs, compared to previous secretaries, I'm not sure he showed the same level of support," he said.
Not all environmentalists, however, shared disdain for Struhs.
Eric Draper with Florida Audubon said, "In my view, Struhs is at his heart, an environmentalist." Draper praised Struhs for fighting Georgia and Alabama over Florida's water rights in the Apalachicola River, his work on the Everglades and helping creating the state's current $3 billion land-buying program
"I think Secretary Struhs has accomplished some remarkable things," Draper said.
But Struhs' decision to take a position with a company that routinely interacts with Florida environmental regulators also drew fire. International Paper has been closely involved with the DEP after it acquired a Pensacola-area pulp and paper mill in 2001.
Environmental groups tried unsuccessfully to challenge the DEP's decision to transfer of wastewater permit from the previous plant owner, Champion International Corp., to International Paper.
The Friends of Perdido Bay argued that International Paper couldn't meet the permit's water-quality standards. The company countered that it could meet the legal limits by moving the discharge point. The courts upheld DEP's decision.
Currently, DEP is reviewing another permit that would allow International Paper to construct a 10-mile pipeline and build a wetlands area that would filter the mill's discharge water before it reaches Perdido Bay.
Jackie Lane, who lives on Perdido Bay and is a member of the group that challenged the state action, said Struhs has been involved in the state actions regarding the Pensacola pulp mill.
"People have to realize the industry and the regulators are very close," Lane said. "It's not surprising that Mr. Struhs is going to work for them. He's their biggest fan."
Linda Young, the southeast regional director for the Clean Water Network, said the pipeline project was being financed by a $60 million loan made to the Escambia County Utilities Authority by the DEP.
"No wonder (International Paper) is grateful to David Struhs," Young said in a statement. "They may as well put him on the payroll since he's doing their work anyway."
Deena Wells, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said DEP considers the pipeline a sound project, noting "it's a commitment by the industry to protect the long-term health of Northwest Florida's environment and economy."
Former Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan and Struhs had announced the project in 2001 saying it would improve the environment as well as protect jobs at the paper mill.
As for any recent dealings with International Paper, Wells said Struhs had recused himself from any decisions involving the company for the last "few months." while he considered moving to the private sector.
Gov. Bush also said he did not consider it a "conflict" for Struhs to go to work for International Paper.
"The answer is no, nice try," Bush said in response to questions.
Sun staff writer Greg C. Bruno contributed to this report.
Jennifer Boardman of International Paper said Struhs' new job would require him to meet with regulators and to oversee the company's compliance with environmental laws. But Boardman said it was unlikely Struhs, who has responsibility over operations across the globe, would ever have a reason to work directly on matters involving the Pensacola mill.
"We're going to do what's right," Boardman said. "We hired him for his leadership and ethics."
Phosphate has been the main issue that drew fire from environmentalists. Critics contend that the DEP has not enforced environmental protection regulations in approving a series of permits for the state's largest phosphate producer, IMC Phosphates, to strip mine thousands of acres in Southwest Florida.
As a result, Charlotte County and other mining opponents said they've been forced to spend more than $5 million on legal challenges to the mining permits.

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