TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Reuters) - Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed into law on Tuesday a sugar industry-backed bill relaxing requirements to clean up the Everglades, which critics say threatens the health of the massive Florida wetland.
The bill has come under fire from U.S. lawmakers who say it threatens federal funding critical to the $8 billion restoration of the Everglades, the unique "River of Grass" that supplies drinking water to millions of people and is home to numerous endangered species.
The U.S. District judge overseeing a decade-old cleanup agreement between the state and federal governments expressed grave concerns about the bill, which critics say eases water-quality standards and delays a 2006 deadline.
Judge William Hoeveler said he would forge ahead with the 1994 pact even if Bush, younger brother of President Bush (news - web sites), signed the measure.
The governor said the bill needed work, but that its underlying premise was sound. He asked lawmakers to "clarify" language in the new law.
"The Everglades bill recently passed by the House and Senate is strong legislation built upon good policy," Bush, a Republican, said in a prepared statement prior to the signing. "(It) reinforces our commitment to restore water quality in the Everglades by providing a strategic plan to achieve this goal."
Critics say the bill eases water quality standards meant to reduce the level of phosphorus in the Everglades, polluted for decades by fertilizer-tainted runoff from sugar plantations.
The sugar industry, led by U.S. Sugar Corp., helped push the bill through the Florida legislature.
'EVERGLADES WHENEVER ACT'
Environmental groups, which worked for years to establish the 1994 "Everglades Forever Act," have derisively dubbed the latest legislation the "Everglades Whenever Act."
Alan Farago, chairman of the Sierra Club (news - web sites)'s Florida chapter, said Bush ignored "the hope of millions of Floridians" by refusing to veto the bill.
"We understand politics perfectly well. We understand that big money and big influence can buy just about anything in the state of Florida, including the redefinition of pollution so that polluters can continue to pollute," Farago said in a statement.
Critics of the bill, including Republican U.S. Congressmen Clay Shaw, Porter Goss and Bill Young, said the measure weakens the existing pact between federal and state officials and could jeopardize federal funding for the $8-billion cleanup effort, the costliest public works proposal in U.S. history.
Bush, who met with federal officials in Washington this month, said he has asked lawmakers to tighten language that now states restoration efforts should be concluded at the "earliest practicable date" and pollutants be reduced to the "maximum extent practicable."
Bush has repeatedly brushed aside questions about Florida's commitment to Everglades restoration, saying the state has already earmarked $500 million toward restoration and ongoing efforts have already significantly reduced phosphorus levels in 90 percent of the region.