Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Ocala, has been playing defense lately. A recent water pollution hearing he sponsored in Orlando has been subject to scrutiny, mainly because he invited a slew of agriculture and industrial interests to testify, and only one environmental advocate (who was invited at the last minute). In a new op-ed, Stearns again defends himself against claims that the hearing was one-sided, writing that “no environmental groups contacted [his] office or the committee office seeking to testify until after it was final.”

Responding to a recent column in The Florida Times-Union, Stearns writes that claims that “the witness list was filled with the names of polluters” is a lie:

[T]he witness list … included the EPA’s regional administrator, the director of Florida’s Office of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, the Watershed Management Section Manager for Pinellas County, a union representative and a representative from Gainesville’s utility.

In addition, Paul Steinbrecher, director of Environmental Permitting for JEA, testified on behalf of the Florida Water Environment Association Utility Council.

These are hardly polluters.

Environmentalists would likely disagree. In fact, JEA (formerly the Jacksonville Electric Authority) is well-known as being one of the largest point-source (.pdf) polluters of the St. Johns River, a waterway often inundated with algal blooms and fish kills. Even the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, though a state agency, has continued to protest the implementation of the EPA’s numeric nutrient criteria, a set of rules created to more strictly govern state waterways. (Though Stearns’ hearing centered on the criteria, he has made clear his opposition to their implementation.)

According to Stearns, few environmental advocates were included because they didn’t ask to be.

“Even though no environmental groups contacted my office or the committee office seeking to testify until after it was final, I asked that David Guest, director, Florida Regional Office of Earthjustice, be added,” writes Stearns. “In his statement, Guest noted that he was speaking on behalf of the Sierra Club, Florida Wildlife Federation, St. Johns Riverkeeper, Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida and Conservancy of Southwest Florida.”

As previously reported by The Florida Independent, several environmental organizations say they did indeed request to be included in the hearing, many even before the list of witnesses had been announced, and were flatly denied. Upon learning that the list of witnesses was seemingly one-sided, environmental law firm Earthjustice put out a press release on the matter.

“We put out a press release to let folks know the hearing was going to be one-sided and that representatives who defend the public’s right to clean water were shut out,” says Earthjustice’s Julie Hauserman. “David Guest got a call here in Tallahassee the day before the hearing from a Stearns staffer. The staffer asked him to speak the next morning in Orlando, totally last minute with hardly any time to prepare testimony for the record and travel the five-hour drive down there to south Orlando.”

Hauserman says that Guest did speak on behalf of other environmental groups, because they could not speak for themselves.

Stearns gotten his share of flack over the hearing, but has continually defended himself against claims it was one-sided.

“We’ve been pretty shocked to see Rep. Stearns false public statements on this,” says Hauserman. “But given the polluter influence in Washington these days, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised!”

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