BARTOW — Charging a “whitewash,” a local environmental activist has resigned from a state phosphate research agency’s environmental education panel.
Marian Ryan, a Winter Haven resident active in the Sierra Club, resigned Jan. 5 from the Educational Advisory Committee run by the Bartow-based Florida Institute of Phosphate Research.
But institute officials dispute that charge, saying that they have been making changes in the program to try to address those complaints and that they think they have made a great deal of progress toward having a more balanced program.
The committee reviews proposals for educational grants to teachers for classroom projects tying various aspects of phosphate mining and processing into lessons in which students use math, science, language or social studies skills.
But Ryan said proposals’ contents are skewed by training sessions slanted toward the phosphate industry, and the agency has not actively sought proposals on a wide enough variety of subjects.
Although environmentalists have questioned the content of some of the classroom projects, their main complaint is that key issues such as public health and environmental damage are missing from the lessons.
Ryan is the second environmentalist to resign from the committee in recent weeks.
Frances Coleman, another longtime Sierra Club activist from Winter Haven, resigned Dec. 17.
“We foolishly thought that FIPR would be a good springboard for launching an educational program that would strike a proper balance between the environment and the industry that has severely impacted it,” Ryan said.
“Instead, over our continued objections, the committee and the FIPR staff has endorsed an industry ‘whitewash.’ ” she said. “I see no public benefit from the program as it currently exists.”
Ryan said she is concerned because public money is involved and because the institute’s educational efforts make no attempt to
persuade teachers to plan projects around the environmental and health issues that top the list of duties the Legislature assigned to the agency when it created it in 1978.
The law says the institute has the authority to conduct studies “related to radiation and water consumption, or other environmental effects of phosphate mining and reclamation” relating to the “health, safety and welfare of the citizens of this state and particularly the citizens of the regions where the phosphate mining and processing occurs.”
Paul Clifford, the institute’s executive director and the person who has final review of the educational proposals, said he regretted Ryan’s and Coleman’s resignations.
He said he disagreed with their description of the program.
“I’m just kind of puzzled by it,” Clifford said.
Clifford, who took over the agency in 1996, maintains he has attempted to make the institute an independent agency not controlled by the phosphate industry.
He said the resignations will be discussed at the next institute board meeting, set for 9:30 a.m. Friday in the Polk County Commission board room.
Ryan and Coleman were invited to attend the meeting, but both declined, citing previous commitments.
The center of the dispute was about projects that would be funded by mini-grants the institute provides to teachers at various levels ranging from elementary through high school.
Teachers apply for these grants after training sessions organized by the institute’s staff.
Last year, the program provided $78,177 to teachers who submitted grant proposals, said institute spokeswoman Mary Ellen Murphy.
Last year’s budget for the institute’s educational program was $154,637 out of an overall budget of $4.5 million.
In addition, the institute has committed $1 million to constructing an education center adjacent to the main office.
Coleman, a retired school teacher, said she was frustrated by a procession of projects that were approved that involved “too many proposals for Freddie Frog ponds, butterfly gardens and phosphate-feeds-you activities.”
“We did not expect or demand only environmental topics be addressed, but we asked for a balanced approach, and it didn’t happen,” she said.
But the institute’s Murphy, who was involved in the educational program, said that’s an unfair characterization of the program grants. She said the institute made changes in the teacher training session based on comments Coleman and Ryan made.
“They don’t realize how much impact they had on the process,” Murphy said.
For instance, the sessions now include field trips to unmined natural areas rather than only to mined and reclaimed areas so that teachers understand the differences between the various types of terrain, Murphy said.
“I think we have made great progress,” she said.
She argued that it was a new program with inevitable start-up problems.
But it shouldn’t have taken five years to work out those problems, Ryan said.
The institute was created to sponsor scientific research to examine ways to minimize the impact of phosphate mining and processing and to improve industrial processes.
The institute’s operations are financed by the Phosphate Research Trust Fund, which receives a portion of the phosphate severance tax, a state tax phosphate companies pay based on the tonnage they mine.