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Florida water regulators approve big permits for pulp mills

FLORIDA (From news reports) -- The state's water regulator for Central and North Florida renewed permits Tuesday for two of Florida's biggest industrial consumers of aquifer water.

The swift approvals without deliberation, which allow a pair of pulp mills to pump nearly half as much Floridan Aquifer water as used by the city of Orlando, reflected a makeover during the past several years of the St. Johns River Water Management District by Gov. Rick Scott.

The agency's governing board is now dominated by developer and industry representatives and is without environmental advocates who in previous years routinely called for close board examination of big permits when they came up for renewal amid increased tensions over water supplies.

The permits were awarded to pulp mills in Fernandina Beach that chemically convert timber into paper and plastic products; they also are among Florida's biggest dischargers of factory wastewater into a river.

Both mills have operated since the 1930s.

In the case of the Rayonier permit, there is a connection between the agency's board and a private company.

Janet Price is the environmental manager for Rayonier Inc. and was appointed to the water agency in June.

During a staff presentation of the permit, she recused herself from voting.

"I don't want any conflict of interest," Price said.

Asked for comment, she responded with a written statement passed along by the agency's media-relations department, saying that she is an executive at one of the Rayonier companies that is separate from the one getting the permit.

"Therefore, I do not see any conflict of interest between my current position and today's board action," Price said. "However, to avoid an appearance of conflict, I voluntarily abstained from today's vote."

John Miklos, the water agency chairman whose Orlando company obtains wetland-impact permits from the agency on behalf of developers, has previously drawn criticism because of his dual roles.

Environmental advocates said Tuesday they would have welcomed a board discussion but didn't expect one.

"It's another example of industry being highly represented on the board," said Lisa Rinaman, who heads the St. Johns Riverkeeper environmental group. "We are seeing this play out as permits continue to be rubber stamped."

Linda Young, director of the Florida Clean Water Network and a persistent critic of pulp-mill pollution, said the permits are "corporate welfare."

"This water belongs to the people of Florida and should be kept as clean as possible," she said.

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