Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, is again defending his decision not to include Florida environmental groups in a recent hearing on a set of EPA water pollution standards, saying that the list of witnesses was finalized before any of them asked to be included.

The hearing, sponsored by Stearns and a subcommittee of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, was met with ire by environmental groups, who have repeatedly argued that the hearing was one-sided.

In a statement made to The Florida Independent, Stearns’ office said that no environmental groups were included, because they didn’t ask to be. At the last minute, an attorney from environmental law firm Earthjustice was invited to participate, and did testify at the hearing (along with several utility and agricultural representatives).

But several of the environmental groups in question say they did ask to participate — in some cases, repeatedly — and were turned down. In a new statement, Stearns’ office says that none of the groups asked to participate until after the hearing was finalized and that Earthjustice attorney David Guest was testifying on behalf of many environmental groups.

The official statement from Stearns’ office:

This was an official congressional hearing open to the public, and at these hearings only the witnesses and the members of Congress make statements. Even though no one from these groups asked to participate in the hearing until after it was finalized, a witness from Earthjustice was added who testified on behalf of the Sierra Club, Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, and Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Representatives from the Sierra Club and the Florida Wildlife Federation both maintain that they asked to be included as witnesses of the hearing, and were denied.

Cathy Harrelson, an organizer of the Gulf Restoration Network, says she called Stearns’ office even before the list of witnesses was put on the committee’s website, and was still denied a chance to participate after repeated inquiries. The staffer who answered her call, Harrelson says, said that the invitations had already gone out, and that it would be “impossible” to include her.

Bryan Eastman, the head of an environmental caucus at the University of Central Florida (where the hearing was held), also called Stearns’ office, and requested permission to join the panel. “He told us no one could speak except invited guests, so I called his committee headquarters who said the same thing,” he said, in a comment on a Florida Independent post.

While Stearns’ office argues that Guest was speaking on behalf of various environmental groups, the panel included a host of those opposed to the EPA proposal on which the hearing was focused. A memorandum of the hearing on the committee’s website shows that leaders in the dairy, agriculture, utilities and construction fields were all invited to participate.

Environmentalists like Harrelson say that it would have been nice to have a panel focused on the cost of water pollution, which affects fishing and waterfront real estate, among other industries, in Florida.

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