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Stewart, longtime Tampa defender of environment, dies at 89

Roger Stewart, a fearless environmental champion in an era when that wasn’t always a popular stance, died Thursday morning. He was 89.

For 30 years, Stewart led Hillsborough County’s Environmental Protection Commission, fighting against powerful special interests to clean up Tampa Bay and improve air quality. His zeal got him fired in 1974 after he appeared on CBS’ “60 Minutes” and showed barely treated sewage flowing into Tampa Bay.

“He blew the doors off the problems here,” said Ed Turanchik, a former county commissioner who chaired the EPC during Stewart’s tenure. “I think Roger Stewart shocked Hillsborough County into the 20th century by being tenacious and making us deal with our environmental problems.”

Stewart’s tenure included decades when the county’s population surged and development interests held powerful sway in state and local government. He defied the developers while convincing county commissioners that preserving green space was in the public’s interest.

“We would be paved over from county border to county border if it wasn’t for Roger standing up and advising officials about what we needed to preserve and protect,” said former County Commissioner Jan Platt, who also chaired the EPC while Stewart was director.

Stewart grew up on a farm in the New York-New Jersey area. At 18, he joined the Army Air Corps and spent the next 21 years serving as a military pilot. In a June 2000 interview with The Tampa Tribune, Stewart said flying 20,000 feet over the Earth gave him a unique perspective of its flora and fauna.

“To me, it’s kind of an inspiration,” he said.

After retiring from the Air Force with the rank of major, Stewart earned a degree in zoology from the University of South Florida. Soon after, he got a job as a biologist with the Hillsborough County Health Department’s Pollution Control division. Stewart created the county’s water sampling network while at the health department.

In 1967, Stewart took over the EPC soon after it was created through a legislative act sponsored by then-state Rep. Terrell Sessums of Tampa. Sessums, who lived on Davis Islands, said personal encounters with Tampa’s dirty environment drove his desire to toughen local air and water quality standards.

Sessums often saw untreated sewage floating in the water when he sailed on the Bay. Once, while Sessums painted his house, black flecks rained out of the sky. His wife told him it was a regular event when nearby industries or power plants blew their stacks.

The bill faced industry opposition when it first surfaced. To assuage the concerns of the businessmen and win support from the other members of the Hillsborough delegation, Sessums agreed that county commissioners would serve as the Environmental Protection Commission.

“They were locally elected officials so (industrialists) would have someone they could appeal to if they didn’t like the way they were being regulated,” Sessums said. “They backed off.”

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But county commissioners, nominally the boss of the EPC director, did not find Stewart to be a compliant employee. He often butted heads with commissioners.

“He didn’t mind who he hurt or whose toes he stepped on. Roger wanted to do the right thing and get it done,” said Mary Figg, a former state representative who helped pass a law requiring advanced treatment for wastewater. When it came time to rewrite the law, she sought Stewart’s help.

His inflexibility and thorny personality contributed to Stewart’s firing soon after the “60 Minutes” episode aired. After the show, Stewart testified before the state pollution control board and said Tampa’s Hookers Point sewage treatment plant was near collapse.

The commissioners fired Stewart without warning, but his sacking provoked a public outcry. Stewart sued the commissioners based on an obscure law, and the commissioners’ lawyer advised them to rehire the EPC chief. He retired on his own terms on June 30, 2000.

Stewart’s courage in speaking out about the sewer plant helped pave the way for the Grizzle-Figg Act, which required advanced wastewater treatment for discharges into Tampa Bay and other state waters. Mary Figg co-sponsored the bill with state Sens. Harold Wilson and Mary Grizzle.

“People who remember what Tampa Bay was like in those days realized what serious work needed to be done to improve the quality of life and the environment, and he provided that leadership, among a host of others,” said Ann Paul, regional coordinator for Audubon of Florida.

Stewart was beloved by the EPC staff despite his curmudgeonly demeanor. Jerry Campbell, now the EPC director of air management, remembers starting at the agency right out of college. Being a Midwestern boy, Campbell said, he thought he should call his new boss “sir” or “Mr. Stewart.” Stewart would wince when he was addressed formally and finally told Campbell to stop. Stunned, Campbell almost said “yes sir,” but stopped himself and said, “yes Roger.”

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“He didn’t want to be held up on a pedestal,” Campbell said. “And anytime we’d get into a situation that was sticky, he’d look across the desk and say, ‘Jerry, do the right thing and I’ll worry about the consequences.’”

Deep into his retirement, Stewart made one more dramatic appearance on the public stage. In June 2007, commissioners again earned the public’s wrath when they voted to eliminate the EPC’s wetlands protection division.

At a public hearing to reconsider the issue, Stewart rose to a loud roar from a raucous crowd. The grizzled warrior first apologized to commissioners for being hard of hearing. Then he blasted them for limiting speakers to one minute apiece.

“If your time is so valuable, then get the hell out and do something else,” Stewart roared, pointing to a side door.

Thought not nuanced, Stewart’s zealous defense of the environment was exactly what Sessums wanted for the agency he created. In 2010, Stewart became the second winner of the T. Terrell Sessums Award for work in defense of the environment.

“We gave the ball to him and Roger ran with it,” Sessums said. “He was a real champion for the environment.”

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