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Chafee's sudden reversal on the issue is certainly intriguing, but it is made downright remarkable in light of the fact that the person most responsible for it was Florida's Democratic senator and supposed Everglades champion, Bob Graham. Chafee's staff confirms that after signing the letter requesting a GAO investigation -- but before it could be delivered -- Chafee spoke to both Graham and Florida Republican Sen. Connie Mack.
"Those discussions may have convinced him he was getting into an area that might be a little bit more complicated than he had initially thought," offers Steve Shimberg, chief staffer on the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee. "Senator Chafee thought better of getting involved in a situation that he wasn't completely up to speed on."
Because Chafee was simply asking the GAO to investigate whether HABDI's development plans would conflict with the federal government's efforts to restore the Everglades, it is difficult to understand how his request for information and assurances would be, in Shimberg's words, "more complicated than he had initially thought." The complications appear to stem not from environmental considerations but rather from political ones. The myopia that has been so rampant among local and state officials regarding HABDI now seems to have spread as far as Washington, D.C.
Last month New Times reported that HABDI president Herrera, a registered Republican, has emerged as one of the Democratic Party's major campaign contributors, having donated more than $100,000 in the past year to the Democratic National Committee and Pres. Bill Clinton's re-election campaign. Those contributions and resulting party contacts have garnered Herrera access to the highest levels of the Clinton Administration, including a private meeting this past April with Transportation Secretary Federico Pena. The Federal Aviation Administration, under Pena, must approve HABDI's lease with Dade County in order for it to become final.
And now comes Sen. Bob Graham to help run interference for HABDI in the halls of Congress. While Chafee may have spoken to both Graham and Mack before deciding to shelve the GAO investigation, sources familiar with the discussions say it was Graham who persuaded Chafee to back off. But why would Chafee listen to a senator from the other side of the aisle? Although they don't share political affiliations, Chafee and Graham enjoy a long-standing friendship. Both are considered moderate voices in their respective parties, and each has developed a respectable reputation regarding environmental issues. A spokeswoman for Graham's office said the senator was on vacation with his family and could not be reached for comment.
It's not so difficult to understand why Graham would want to avoid a GAO investigation. A critical report would place him in a very difficult situation. If investigators decided that HABDI's plans for the base would have an adverse affect on Everglades restoration, Graham, who has publicly declared his support for the cleanup effort, could find himself obligated to intercede on behalf of the environmentalists. And that would almost certainly provoke the ire of both Herrera and South Dade business groups who see the air base development as the area's best shot at economic recovery. For Graham, the best GAO report is no GAO report.
With or without a formal congressional investigation, HABDI's environmental problems are apparent, argues Farago. The one that has received the most attention is the so-called military canal, which runs from the eastern edge of the air base to Biscayne National Park. For years the canal caught most of the storm water runoff from the base A the fuels, oils, and other contaminants associated with an airfield A and dumped it directly into the bay. The canal itself is so polluted that county officials say they are considering simply filling it in and trying to create another system for dealing with polluted runoff, but no firm plans or cost estimates have been developed.
A commercial and residential development on the scale that HABDI envisions, attracting tens of thousands of new residents to South Dade, would also dramatically affect the flow of rainwater on surrounding lands. When rain falls on an empty field, it is absorbed into the ground. Turn that field into a housing complex and the water -- along with the waste it collects -- must be channeled somewhere. "If those developments are east of U.S. 1," says Farago, "then that storm water is going to be pushed toward Biscayne National Park."
The issue of drinking water is another cause for concern. The more people who are attracted to South Dade, the greater the need for potable water, and the main well field for that part of the county is located just north of the base. "Whatever water we pull from those well fields simply drains freshwater out of the Everglades," Farago says.
Farago argues that the federal government should guarantee that these issues will be addressed before the base is conveyed to the county and HABDI. "Because the engine that is going to be driving this development is the air force base, the federal government has, in my opinion, a higher responsibility to make sure that before it transfers this piece of property its long-term goals of restoration of the environment are not going to be adversely affected," he says. "It's time to take the opportunity, with the disposition of this federal asset, to understand how we can create a more perfect world in South Florida. If we lose this opportunity, we may never have another one, because once the people are in place it is very difficult to be able to provide comprehensive planning for an area."