Environmental groups are disputing claims by Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, that they weren’t included in the congressman’s Tuesday water pollution hearing because they didn’t ask to be.

The Stearns hearing in Orlando focused on new EPA water pollution rules in Florida. The list of witnesses invited to speak at the panel seemed one-sided to environmentalists, with representatives from various agriculture and utility companies opposed to the rules, but none from the environmental groups that support them.

In response to allegations that those groups were being shut out of the hearing, Stearns released a statement yesterday, saying that no environmental groups requested to join the discussion. But the Sierra Club, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Gulf Restoration Network, and a University of Central Florida group all maintain that they did indeed call Stearns’ office to request an invitation, and were denied.

“The statement that was issued by Stearns’ office is not correct,” says Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation. “I did specifically request that I or a representative be able to speak. I indicated my name, my organization and that we were supportive of EPA’s actions, and that we wanted to be able to tell our side of the story. I was told that only invited speakers may participate. We may attend, but not speak. We may submit written comments, which may be included in the record if all of the members (minority and majority) vote to allow it to be included.”

Fuller says he did not get the name of the staffer with whom he spoke, a mistake he now regrets.

“I find it hard to believe that Manley Fuller, who heads the most respected and a very middle-of-the-road environmental group, was flatly turned down,” says Frank Jackalone, senior organizing manager of the Sierra Club. “After I heard that, I didn’t even bother asking. I knew they’d say no.”

A colleague of Jackalone’s, however, did ask. Cris Costello, the Florida Water Quality Campaign director for the Sierra Club, called Stearns’ office in D.C. and asked to speak at the hearing. She was also turned down.

As was Cathy Harrelson, an organizer of the Gulf Restoration Network, who recounts her conversation with a Stearns staffer last week.

“I asked who was on the panel, and he said he didn’t know when that information would be available on the website,” she says. “I asked about the agenda, and he said that would also be on the website. I then asked if I could be included on a panel, as a representative of a citizens’ group. He said that the invitations had already gone out and that it would be impossible to include me. This wasn’t true, because they invited David Guest[, an attorney for environmental law firm Earthjustice,] to speak less than a day before the hearing. I said ‘This is a congressional hearing paid for with taxpayer dollars, correct?’ He said yes. I then asked, ‘Why are no citizens’ groups from Florida being included?’ Finally, he said ‘I’m just the press guy.’”

Bryan Eastman, head of the College Democrats at UCF Environmental Caucus, says he also called Stearns’ office and was denied an invitation to speak at the hearing. In a comment on a Florida Independent post, Eastman called Stearns’ statement a “boldfaced lie”:

I am the leader of a UCF environmental group and I called Stearns office to see if we could speak, as did the Sierra Club. He told us no one could speak except invited guests, so I called his committee headquarters who said the same thing. This is a boldfaced lie by the representative.

There was no public testimony at the hearing, and all reports indicate that, aside from one EPA representative and the last-minute inclusion of David Guest, the hearing largely featured opposition to the EPA criteria.

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