Selling us down the river
Quiet and beautiful, the Ichetucknee River is a precious gem among the State's natural treasures. Since the beginning of time, it has jetted from the Florida aquifer, a perfectly clear flow of water with brilliant accents of white and turquoise. The shortest river in the state, the Ichetucknee runs seven miles down a pristine path of north Florida jungle, merging into the Santa Fe's black water, which in turn melds with the Suwannee on its way to the Gulf.
Startlingly clear, the Ichetucknee is a perfect pearl, a reminder of all we have and where we are. Spring-fed, the river is a cool 72 degrees year round, the same temperature as the ground at this latitude, inviting upwards of 200,000 swimmers, tubers and canoeists annually.
The water is bracing when you jump in, and you catch your breath. But then the chill subsides and, with a mask and snorkel, you can move with the current and see the real marvels underwater.
Patches of white sand are paved with living snails and ageless, empty shells. In between are fallen logs, grasses that sway and pulse, and endless varieties of fish and turtles. To submerge and flow with the river is an enveloping sensory experience unavailable in our day-to-day lives--rich and timeless. The breathtaking loveliness of this resource notwithstanding, Anderson Columbia is intent on building a cement plant near the Ichetucknee. One of the state's most powerful companies, this firm has a documented record of flagrant political influence and environmental disregard.
Last year, in a revealing special investigation, the Pensacola News Journal detailed the swath of scandal associated with this company, including its close financial ties to politicians that could help them obtain their objectives. Two Democratic legislators, Bo Johnson and Randy Mackey, were convicted last year of income tax evasion for not reporting funds received from Anderson Columbia.
The Ichetucknee cement plant would generate significant problems for the region. The factory's kilns will burn used tires, releasing dioxins, heavy metals (including mercury, that accumulates over time) and other poisons into the air and nearby waters. Also, every day and around the clock, several hundred heavy trucks would drive to the plant on the one road through tiny Ft. White, a quiet rural community close by the Ichetucknee.
Ft. White's citizens are in an uproar at the prospect of the impact of this activity on their lives.
So when local quality-of-life and environmental activists began to campaign against the project, Governor Bush and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) head David Struhs stepped forward. Canoeing the river, they declared that they would never allow the river to be compromised. No plant would be built.
Once back in Tallahassee, though, the wheels of the machine began to turn. In a surprise reversal five months later, Bush abruptly announced a new deal.
In exchange for giving the state a mine that threatened to pollute the Ichetucknee, Anderson Columbia would receive a permit for the cement plant. The Ichetucknee would be protected by a pollution monitoring system installed at the site. Remarkably, the company's past environmental outrages didn't shake the governor's confidence in its future behavior.
Now, an April 15th Tampa Tribune article has reported that Steven MacNamara, chief of staff to Speaker-of-the-House John Thrasher, has been moonlighting for Anderson Columbia.
Immediately following Gov. Bush's statement that no permit would be issued for the cement plant, but while serving as Thrasher's aide, MacNamara was hired as a contractor to file legal briefs and to represent Anderson Columbia in closed-door negotiations with the State's DEP.
Tallahassee lobbyists describe MacNamara as "Thrasher's heavy hitter," whose influence derives, at least in part, from his role as gatekeeper to the speaker.
Thrasher has, of course, declined comment on this affair. But his office issued a statement saying he has "full faith and confidence" in MacNamara's abilities. Meanwhile, MacNamara says that while his actions may have been "unusual," nothing he did was "illegal, unethical or improper."
It looks like Anderson Columbia bought the power of the Speaker's office, and that the state subsequently acquiesced to all the company's desires.
We all know politics can be a dirty business. The ancient Romans, who were less tolerant than we are, would sew a wrongdoer into a bag with wild animals and throw it into a river. If the appearances of impropriety turn out to be true, I know a river where the first sensation would be bracing.
Truett George is mayor of Ft. White.
If you would like to help stop the construction of the Suwannee cement plant, please call Virginia Seacrist, at 378-6603 or (904) 497-4471 or email email@example.com.
[The Save the Ichetucknee efforts have added a new website, the Ichetucknee Mobilization Web Site, at http://www.metanet.org/im/. Also see http://www.ichetucknee.org --webmaster]
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