Special interests that turn the cleaning of Big Sugar’s pollution into primarily a taxpayer responsibility have always benefited from a complacent media hewing closely to the line of advertisers, Chambers of Commerce, Associated Industries, the Farm Bureau and so forth.
Florida politics organizes along identical lines. Consider just one example: how Miami-Dade County last year passed a resolution calling on the Florida legislature to purchase environmental sensitive lands, owned by US Sugar Corporation, south of Lake Okeechobee in order to be converted to storage and cleansing marshes. That measure — sponsored by Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava — passed unanimously. It was subsequently ignored by the Miami-Dade delegation to the state legislature — Republicans in the pocket of Big Sugar and Democrats too numbed by the difficulty of countering Big Sugar’s domination.
If the Florida legislature and Gov. Rick Scott and his backup led by Ag Secretary Adam Putnam had agreed in 2015 to support the US Sugar buyout, the state would be on the way to solving the dynamic pollution engine that is Lake Okeechobee. But they didn’t, and as a result, the historic rainfalls in January triggered an equally unprecedented event: social media as an organizing tool for a furious public in areas that vote mostly Republican.
It is a measure of social media’s power that Florida politicians, with presidential primary season around the corner, implored Gov. Scott to do something to neutralize citizens using Facebook, Instagram, and blogs immune to the pressure of advertisers. They needed to put out the fast fuse, now, hoping that social media would not further ignite an historically complacent electorate.
Gov. Rick Scott and Ag. Secretary Adam Putnam did not put out the fuse. They moved it. They got federal agencies to agree to shift hundreds of billions of gallons of polluted water towards Everglades. What Gov. Scott did, and the US Army Corps of Engineers and national park service agreed to, was to release a huge volume of rainfall that had stacked up in a water conservation area (called WCA 3-A) south of Lake Okeechobee. The primary purpose of that water is the fresh water supply of millions of residents on Florida’s east coast. By sending the water which may or may not meet clean water standards, into the Everglades, Florida Bay, and Miami-Dade county canals, they create “room” for the new and polluted water to stack up. The water that is released into WCA 3-A will be replaced by filthy water from Lake Okeechobee. What happens to that water is anyone’s guess, but it is a question mark that will not be addressed by science until after presidential primary season blows through Florida.
The workaround by Gov. Scott and acquiescence by federal agencies can be justified as a measure to protect the lives of downstream communities in the path of devastating floods if heavy rainfalls cause Lake Okeechobee to breach. The diversion of water will also help — for a moment — the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians, most threatened by high water levels in the Everglades. In fact, Tribal residents in the Everglades are the most vulnerable to heavy public health costs of toxic water. Without adding storage and cleansing capacity from Big Sugar lands, Gov. Scott and Ag Secretary Adam Putnam just postponed a day of reckoning, when pollution will devastate the Everglades and Florida Bay.
There is a further hitch. Having taken to social media in the hundreds of thousands, it is clear voters and taxpayers will not be placated by diversionary tactics of Gov. Scott and Ag. Secretary Putnam, just two of the high GOP officials who took secret hunting trips to the King Ranch in Texas before the 2014 election, ferried back and forth on private jets and paid for by US Sugar Corporation.
Not a single voter with bullhorns and signs on bridges and highways demanding the state and federal government fix the problem of Big Sugar gets to travel on private jets. What is happening in Florida — this political crisis — is another manifestation of a class conflict pitting struggling voters against wealthy special interests and politicians in their back pockets.
The Florida legislature should have listened to the Miami-Dade County Commission last year, when the commission passed a resolution by unanimous vote that Amendment 1 funds — secured through a constitutional measure passed by more than 75 percent of voters in 2014 — to purchase more storage and cleansing marshes.
Last week, Monroe County Commissioner George Neugent expressed his belief along the same line as Miami-Dade: that our economy and prospects are being wrecked by upstream water pollution. This is not a problem segregating Florida Bay from the Indian River opening to the Atlantic, or the Caloosahatchee to the Gulf of Mexico dividing the southwest from Florida’s urban millions to the southeast; its no different from members of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians to upstream farm workers intimidated by the good old boy network that surrounds them. It is time to fix the mess: a political mess, not just an environmental one.
As to the reader’s question, why am I always writing about an environmental crisis? The answer: it is what readers want. Hundreds of thousands are paying attention on social media. Just look at the Facebook page: Bullsugar.org. Florida has never experienced a populist movement like this — it is not organized by traditional environmental groups — , and that’s newsworthy.
… Your email represents hundreds I’ve received. This has reached a level which calls for immediate and a forever cure to this ongoing catastrophe that has been allowed to go on for too long.
For me you hit the nail squarely on the head: what has more value, the Everglades and all that entails, Fisheries – Recreational & Commercial – the 3rd largest barrier reef of the world, S. Florida’s economy Or a subsidized sugar industry?
Take the $200,000,000 million dollars Monroe County sends to Tallahassee annually from sales tax and direct it to fixing this problem in a lasting way.
I will forward you my letters to the appropriate and responsible players that hold the power for immediate action on this ongoing catastrophe. This has clearly become a “All hands on Deck” situation.
Monroe County Commissioner