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The fate of Florida's wetlands could be decided behind closed doors, groups say

Environmental and activist groups are criticizing the state for drafting in secrecy the details of a new permitting process to build in Florida’s wetlands.

In a letter Monday addressed to Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein, environmental groups Audubon Florida and 1000 Friends of Florida alongside the League of Women Voters called for a more transparent process in DEP’s workshopping of an application that would give the state almost exclusive discretion in doling out permits to build in wetlands.

Currently, there are two systems in place to authorize building in Florida’s wetlands. Developers can request a permit through the state, or they can go through the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Over the years, the state’s permitting process has been streamlined, whereas the EPA’s system has remained slow. Some have described it as redundant.

HB 7043, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in March, gives DEP permission to draft an application to the EPA to allow the state to authorize federal permits, so long as they don’t breach Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act, which approves on a case-by-case basis development — known as “dredge and fill” activities — in wetlands.

DEP is rapidly drafting the application and taking public comment as is standard during accompanying rule-making workshops. It’s held three workshops around the state already, along with an online webinar. An estimated 300 Floridians have weighed in on rule-making, according to DEP, and the agency recently extended its public comment period by two weeks.

But the signatories of the Monday letter fear that a great bulk of the details of the application are being drafted outside of the sunshine.