WEST PALM BEACH — Sugar grower Florida Crystals is lobbying for an inland port with the development of an industrial and commercial center just south of Lake Okeechobee, in the heart of the state's proposed path for Everglades restoration.
Area officials and the state Transportation Department say the project would link seaside ports on Florida's coasts with roads and rail lines.
Supporters say the project could make up for some job losses in the region in the wake of the state's proposal to buy 300 square miles from U.S. Sugar Corp., based in Clewiston.
Under the $1.75-billion proposal, the company would shut down in six years, putting 1,700 people out of work.
Opponents of the port, however, fear it could negate benefits from the land purchase touted in June by Gov. Charlie Crist as providing the "missing link" to the state's multibillion-dollar restoration efforts.
Crist and water managers said then the proposed deal, set to be finalized with U.S. Sugar by Nov. 30, would remove agriculture from crucial segments of the River of Grass, allowing water to flow more freely south into the Everglades.
Florida Crystals, owned by the Fanjuls of Palm Beach, said water for restoration could still flow around the inland port at the company's Okeelanta site, where it operates a mill, refinery, rail hub and power plant.
Environmentalists, however, see the move as a betrayal that could once again put politics and business interests ahead of Everglades restoration.
"When development proposals come before you have the science developed, you end up with development limiting options for restoration," said Lisa Interlandi, of the Everglades Law Center.
Florida Crystals vice president Danny Martel said the two projects can coexist.
"What we're trying to achieve here is, really, to create a balance between … economic development, our sugar operation and the environment," Martel said.
The state's purchase of the U.S. Sugar property, which isn't contiguous, would likely mean water managers would have to negotiate land swaps with the Fanjuls in order to realize the goal of connecting Lake Okeechobee with the rest of the Everglades ecosystem.
Farming and development have for years stymied restoration, blocking water flow and contributing pollutants such as fertilizers and runoff into the wetlands.
Communities in the region that have long relied on U.S. Sugar's presence have expressed worry that once the company leaves, surrounding towns could face economic collapse.
Florida Crystals plans a formal pitch on the port to Palm Beach County commissioners Aug. 19.