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Divvying up a sunken treasure: state, salvors bicker

Buried in the sand off the Florida coast are the wrecks of 17th-century Spanish galleons that reportedly hold millions of dollars' worth of gold, silver , jewels, and artifacts.

Finding one is a dream come true for any treasure salvor, but holding onto it is a dream come true for his attorney.

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The question of who owns a sunken wreck was raised again recently when treasure salvor Bill Austin said he had found the gold- and silver-laden wreck of a Spanish galleon less than a quarter-mile off a beach in Collier County along Florida's west coast.

Starting with coins and ceramic plates that washed up on the beach, Mr. Austin searched nearby waters with a newly developed, sophisticated metal detector that can locate gold and silver, his attorney says. His findings indicated ''appreciable amounts of gold and silver'' buried in 10 to 30 feet of water.

Timbers recovered and the type of hull construction reportedly indicate the wreck may date from the 17th century or earlier.

Florida says it wants to preserve for the people the artifacts found on Spanish galleons as archaeological and historical records. Officials with the Division of Archives, History, and Records Management cite state law that says the state has ownership of any wreck within three miles of the coast.

''Unless the salvage company has archaeological expertise on board, and if it just mines the site for its treasure, rather than carefully studying it for its historical value, then it will be a loss to the people of the state of Florida, '' says Ross Morrell, the division's director.

The state offers the salvors 75 percent of whatever is found, as long as they agree that the state has ownership and comply with state regulations. But treasure salvors argue that under federal law, the state does not have title to wrecks, and federal law in this case takes precedence over state law.

David Paul Horan, a Key West attorney who specializes in representing treasure salvors, says his clients would be willing to donate 25 percent of what they find to the state - and take the donation as a tax deduction - if the state would drop its suits. And salvors would like to have state archaeologists aboard, he says, because their research would increase the value of what is found.

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But Mr. Morrell says the state is not in the business of increasing treasure hunters' riches. The state must have control of the wreck if his division is going to supply archaeologists to study it, he says.

Last year US District Court Judge James Lawrence King ruled in favor of salvors in another case, saying that federal admiralty law superseded state law. The state has decided to drop its appeal of that case, but an attorney for the state said it will be looking for a new case - probably Austin's - to appeal to the US Supreme Court, if necessary.

Meanwhile, the state is looking for loopholes in Judge King's decision as it deals with Austin. ''We're making sure no Florida laws are violated that Judge King did not address, such as environmental laws,'' Morrell says. ''It's not our intention to delay the salvors, but when DNR (Florida Department of Natural Resources) notified us about activity around the wreck, I asked if they were going to be doing any bottom-altering activity that close to a state beach.''

The Florida Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) and the US Army Corps of Engineers have told salvor Austin that he will have to file for dredge-and-fill permits before they will allow him to sift through the sand for any signs of the wreck's cargo.

''Now, under the guide of environmental regulation, they're going to try to stop the salvage,'' attorney Horan says.

Environmental regulators insist that is not true. Austin will be setting a precedent for digging up the gulf bottom to look for treasure, they say, and they have to make sure he won't upset the environment in the process.

''This is no drive to stop them,'' says Langley Adair, a DER enforcement officer in Fort Myers. ''We just want them to apply for permits. If they can show the job can be done with a minimal amount of damage to aquatic resources, there's no reason why they shouldn't get the permit.''

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