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   Court Keeps Polluters at Bay While EPA sets plans for Everglades Protection.

July 19, 2011: The United States Court of Appeals rejected an attempt by the State of Florida, sugarcane growers, and the South Florida Water Management District to block a federal EPA plan to protect the Everglades from cane farming pollution. EPA's new plan to save the Everglades was mandated in 2010 by federal District Judge Alan Gold as a result of a lawsuit brought by Friends of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Tribe. The State, sugarcane growers and the Water District challenged the federal plan in the appeals court, but the court ruled that the challenge was premature since the plan was still being implemented. Alan Farago, president of Friends of the Everglades said, “The appeals court rightfully rejected these challenges as yet another delay tactic by the State and sugarcane polluters.”

Sugar cane growers in the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA), located directly north of the Everglades, use the Everglades as their waste treatment facility, flushing billions of gallons of agricultural wastes containing high levels of phosphorus, sulfates, and pesticides, directly and indirectly into the Everglades Protection Area, Big Cypress and Everglades National Park. Agricultural wastes runoff damages the Everglades and also causes high-levels of toxic mercury contamination. Mercury contamination in the Everglades poses a direct, immediate threat to human health, particularly to pregnant women and small children who may consume fish taken from the Everglades. All of the Everglades is under Florida Department of Health Fish Consumption warnings. Mercury in Everglades fish is toxic to the unborn fetus and can cause brain and nervous system damage.

Fifteen years ago, the people of Florida passed a Constitutional Amendment, Art. II, Sec. 7, “Polluter Pays”, which requires those who cause pollution in the Everglades to bear primary responsibility for the costs of stopping and cleaning up the pollution that they cause.In the past fifteen years, instead of adhering to the Constitution provision adopted by voters, the Governor and Legislature have acted to protect the sugar industry from paying the its fair share of pollution treatment. The Governor and Legislators have illegally shifted the cost of treating pollution to the taxpayers of South Florida. This scheme has not only created one of the nation's largest environmental catastrophes, it has also perpetrated one of the largest rip-offs of taxpayers in American history to benefit billionaire industrial farmers.

The Bush EPA turned its back on the Everglades and sided with sugar cane polluters over Florida taxpayers, requiring them to foot Sugar’s pollution cleanup costs. As a result of successful legal efforts by Friends of the Everglades and the Miccosukee Tribe, the EPA under President Obama changed direction and has now identified a realistic plan to clean up the Everglades.

Delaying tactics by the State, Sugar, the Florida Legislature and the South Florida Water Management District continue. Damage to the Everglades and injury to the health of Florida citizens continues unabated. Friends of the Everglades hopes the public clearly sees what is being done to their health and their irreplaceable Everglades. Farago adds, "Florida taxpayers must demand that Governor Scott and the Legislature enforce the Florida Constitution and make the EAA Polluters Pay for their own waste treatment and cleanup, now."



Everglades Sugar:
The Die is Cast

October 10, 2010: Today $194,234,087.08 will be electronically transferred from the South Florida Water Management District to the U.S. Sugar Corporation. And that push of a button will begin the actual restoration of the Everglades. Today marks the beginning of the transfer of the critical Everglades headwaters known as the Everglades Agricultural Area from private to public ownership. Before the passage of now estimated $15 billion Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Act of 2000, Sierra Club and its allies advised government officials to buy sugar land instead of pouring billions of dollars into unsafe underground water storage wells and giant lined mining pits. The way to heal the Everglades, we wrote to the Clinton Administration in 1999, was not to be found in more mechanical, heavily-manipulated water schemes that little resembled anything nature could devise. Indeed, the only way to put the once mighty Everglades back together was to dismantle that which had torn it apart. We must purchase sugar lands, Sierra Club advised, to clean, store and flow the water before its long journey across the Southern Florida peninsula.

Over the last decade, a growing chorus of scientists, judges and economists validated what we had written, but little action was taken. Then one June afternoon in 2008 came a strange call: ‘Governor Charlie Crist is going to make a major announcement tomorrow morning. Meet at the levee. No details given.’ It would be a very big announcement. The State of Florida would be buying the entire assets of the U.S. Sugar Corporation, one of the two major land owners between Lake Okeechobee and the remaining natural Everglades. In that one instant, all the convoluted plumbing contraptions dreamt up by the Corps of Engineers fell like a heap of junk. Crist got it! And unlike the scientists who spoke, but were not heard, Crist had the power to do something about it! We now know that Crist’s vision of regaining public ownership of critical Everglades land ran smack into the headwinds of a faltering economy and legal and political challenges by the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida and Florida Crystals, the Everglades’ other powerful sugar interest. The once mighty deal, $1.75 billion for 187,000 acres of sugar land, finally ended its slide this summer with an all-cash deal for approximately 27,000 acres with options to buy the rest over 10 years.

But here’s the important part. The deal got done. “What else can we do?” said Florida Crystals Vice President Gaston Cantens last week. Despite their fierce maneuvers and the eventual entrance of the Tea Party, Crist pushed the ball over the goal line. The camel’s nose did breach the tent. And to use the words of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon, the die is cast.

Jonathan Ullman, South Florida/Everglades Organizer for the Sierra Club.




 

(February, 2009) - Update on US Sugar Lands Purchase

Sugar Lands Critical to the Everglades Restoration

The first thing you should know about the state of Florida’s pending purchase of U.S. Sugar lands (a.k.a “the sugar deal”) is that everyone’s trying to kill it. No, not just a few people. We’ve got an Indian Tribe, a pair of sugar barons, entire towns, high schools, editorial boards, the Florida Legislature, and yes, even an environmental group.

The next thing you should know is that this $1 billion plus sale must go through or the Everglades has no chance of survival. As environmentalists, we understand the problem: Lake Okeechobee is separated from the remaining Everglades by more than a half million acres of sugar farms. These sugar farms have been pumping out phosphorus for decades and altering water levels to the detriment of the Everglades. In order to clean, store and move enough water for the Everglades to survive, we have to buy land. If we don’t, the Everglades will continue to be taken over by a cancer of phosphorus-loving cattails in the north, and dried into dust in the south. /p

There are a myriad of arguments made against the deal. Here are a few: the Miccosukee Tribe says it opposes the deal because it will strip funds from other restoration projects. That would be a valid point if it wasn’t also true that few other projects work unless you have the land to clean the water. Florida Crystals, which has launched two lawsuits and is lobbying to kill the deal, objects to a $50 an acre seven-year leaseback to U.S. Sugar. We, too, would have preferred the state to use all the land now, but the lease terms were set by the parties, not us. Seven years is a long time to wait, but in year eight, time is on our side.

The underprivileged communities around Lake Okeechobee, like Clewiston and Belle Glade, are opposed because these are company towns and the sale comes during an ever-deepening recession. While one cannot underestimate the personal suffering that will most likely take place, we can see a brighter, stronger future there. After the purchase, the Lakeside communities will have seven years to transition to a new economy – one that is economically empowering and environmentally sustainable.

By this summer, if all goes well, the state of Florida will be holding the deed to one third of the state’s sugar lands. It means we won’t have to spend tens of billions of dollars in the future. It means that we can clean up phosphorus before it heads south. It means an end to fish kills in the Caloosahatchee basin and Indian River Lagoon. It means fires won’t ravage Shark River Slough and erode the organic peat that keeps the Everglades out of the sea. It means everything is possible.

Help the Sierra Club Everglades Committee now at this important time. Help us to reach out to non-environmental organizations and activate our friends. Help us explain that despite the pitfalls and uncertainties, Governor Crist’s sugar deal is a once in a lifetime opportunity to restore the Everglades. To get involved, call (305) 860-9888 or email: jonathan.ullman@sierraclub.org




Sierra Club Statement in Support of the U.S. Sugar Land Purchase

(June 30, 2008) - The Sierra Club strongly supports the purchase of 187,000 acres of land from U.S. Sugar to restore the flow of clean, fresh water at the right time each year to the Everglades from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.

Governor Charlie Crist deserves our thanks for his leadership on this point: yes, there are risks and costs, but long ago we agreed that the destruction of the Everglades exposes taxpayers and future generations to unlimited risk.

The purchase has the potential to provide several major benefits:

  • It would help fill in a missing link in the connection of Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.
  • It would provide adequate spatial extent—if the lands are in the right location—to restore wetlands and wildlife in the northern Everglades.
  • It would take one-third of sugar lands in the Everglades Agricultural Area out of production, thereby reducing nutrient pollution of the entire Everglades system down to Florida Bay.
  • It would restore the northern Everglades as a major tourist attraction and reinvigorate commerce from the shore communities of Lake Okeechobee to the fishing communities of Florida Bay.
  • It would allow much improved management of Lake Okeechobee water levels. Excessive fresh water in Lake Okeechobee would be released south into the Everglades, thus protecting the St. Lucie Canal and Caloosahatchee River from harmful releases following tropical storms and other periods of heavy rainfall.
  • It would serve as a large, natural water storage area and would eliminate the ill-conceived plan to construct 333 aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells as the centerpiece of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan.

The Sierra Club realizes that there are many details that need to be worked out to complete the purchase of the U.S. Sugar cane fields and to create a contiguous corridor from Lake Okeechobee to the Water Conservation Areas south of the Everglades Agricultural Area. In the process, the State of Florida must remain faithful to the overarching goal of restoring the natural flow of water as well as the vast expanse of marshes and sawgrass that once stretched southward from Lake Okeechobee more than a hundred miles to Florida Bay. Such restoration should use the best science available to minimize the use of artificial structures and maximize replication of historic flows.

Governor Crist should move quickly to lay out common sense rules for this acquisition: initiate land swaps to provide contiguous tracts as soon as possible; require that U.S. Sugar parcels swapped to other landowners carry permanent conservation easements and be used for environmentally-friendly purposes; and prohibit land uses incompatible with restoration (e.g. rock mining, power plants and urban development).

We see this purchase as a very important step towards the restoration of the Everglades, which exist nowhere else in the world, as so eloquently described by Marjory Stoneman Douglas in the River of Grass.


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