Roger Stewart, who led Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission for 30 years, died early Thursday after a long illness. He was 89.
Stewart was known as a hard-charging environmentalist who stood up to special interests. When he took over the EPC in 1967, Tampa Bay was a dumping ground for toxic wastes that came straight from pipes with no treatment. The federal Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act were still on a far horizon.
"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 took over the EPC soon after it was created through a legislative act in Tallahassee. The act gave the agency authority to enforce environmental protections anywhere in the county, including the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.
"He was at the helm in days at the end when the pipe discharges were nasty stuff," said Rick Garrity, current director of the EPC and a longtime Stewart associate. "There were discharges that were toxic and were severely impacting the bay. He was a part of the group that changed that."
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. After retiring with the rank of major, Stewart earned a degree in zoology from the University of South Florida. Soon after, he got a job with the county health department's Pollution Control as a biologist. Stewart created the water sampling network while at the health department.
Stewart became known for his tenacity and conviction, and won national recognition for his efforts, according to Garrity. He appeared on CBS' "60 Minutes" in 1974 and expressed concern about the rate of development, which was outpacing the protection for sensitive ecosystems, air and water quality. He showed viewers raw sewage spilling into Tampa Bay.
His forthrightness cost him. In 1974, county commissioners fired Stewart for alleged insubordination. He successfully sued to get his job back. It was the first environmentally oriented legal proceeding in which the U.S. Labor Department became involved.
During his tenure, the EPC was delegated by state and federal agencies to enforce environmental regulations while maintaining county standards that were in many cases stricter than Florida and U.S. rules.
Stewart retired in 2000. When the EPC moved into its new headquarters on Queen Palm Drive near Brandon, the building was named for Stewart.
Published in TBO.com from Aug. 22 to Sept. 21, 2014