Thursday, December 14, 2017

Carl Hiaasen: Big Sugar's slime flows north to Florida's Capitol

The paid soldiers in Gov. Rick Scott's war on the environment are aligning to block state efforts to purchase any farm lands south of Lake Okeechobee, which means Floridians can look forward to more summers of slime.

Nightmare algae blooms, vile and job-killing, are destined to be one of Scott's legacies. Next June, when the St. Lucie estuary again turns puke-green and the oyster beds die, the light-footed governor will be nowhere in the vicinity.

Neither will the tourists.

The blooms are caused by billions of gallons of fresh water that are pumped from Lake O during the rainy season. Loaded with phosphorus and other pollutants from surrounding areas, the lake discharges are mainlined toward both Florida coasts, bringing ruin to saltwater habitats.

Senate President Joe Negron, who lives in Stuart — basically Slime Central — wants the Lake O outflows diverted, cleaned in reservoirs and sent south to the Everglades.

The plan, supported by many scientists and conservation groups, would require purchasing 60,000 acres from agriculture. Only eight years ago, U.S. Sugar embraced such a concept, calling it a "monumental opportunity to save the Everglades" and struck a deal to unload 187,000 acres.

The company infamously reneged, and it owned enough lawmakers to kill the deal. It definitely owns the governor, who'll need Big Sugar's money when he runs for the U.S. Senate in 2018.

As Senate president, Negron is one of the most powerful figures in Tallahassee. He'll need all the clout he can muster for this battle, to which he arrived late and as part of the problem.

Negron has displayed little resistance as his party's leaders have subverted Amendment 1, which 75 percent of voters approved in 2014 for the purchase conservation lands. And he was all-in last year when the Legislature and governor neutered water-quality laws to allow agricultural corporations to monitor their own pollution on the honor system.

Negron now needs Amendment 1 funds to buy farm acreage for conversion to reservoirs. He's under heavy hometown pressure from Treasure Coast residents, who are getting clobbered financially by the algae outbreaks.

Meanwhile Big Sugar has mounted a PR campaign framing Negron's land-purchase plan as an attack on farming and the communities near Lake Okeechobee. This is industry-scripted melodrama; not all cane acreage is highly productive.

Opposition to Negron's plan also comes from the South Florida Water Management District, which at one time relied on actual experts on water management. Real scientists, if you can imagine such a thing! Those were the days.

Since taking office, Scott has loaded the boards of all Florida's water districts with lawyers, developers, Realtors, agricultural and industry advocates. Funding has been cut, and experienced staff members canned.

For instance, the previous executive director of the South Florida water district had worked in that field for two decades. He was replaced by lobbyist/lawyer Pete Antonacci, who'd formerly worked as Scott's special counsel in Tallahassee.

It is Antonacci now leading the district's fight against Negron's cleanup plan. Last week he told a Senate committee that buying more land to hold Lake Okeechobee's overflows would only slow down current restoration projects.

He also said state and federal authorities should focus cleanup efforts north of Lake Okeechobee, such as replacing residential septic tanks with sewers.

That is, almost word-for-word, Big Sugar's position — yet it's coming from the chief of a state agency that's supposed to act in the interests of all Floridians.

Eight million people are affected by the decisions of the South Florida Water Management District, but Rick Scott has turned it into a naked political lobby for the sugar barons, who are already rich from government crop subsidies.

Big Sugar is one of the biggest donors to the governor's PAC, so it's no shock to see him sell out. He's been doing it since Day One.

Ironically, Negron, too, has benefited from the calculated generosity of the sugar industry, which over the years has showered him and his political action committees with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Unlike the governor, though, Negron owes his seat to constituents in one geographic district. Unlike the governor, Negron can't hop on his jet and vanish when there's a manmade environmental catastrophe in his backyard.

He's got to come home and face the folks whose lives are upended by it.

And those folks don't want a repeat of last year's nightmare. They want all that lake water pumped south through the glades, not to the coasts.

Which leaves Negron uncustomarily at odds with Scott and Big Sugar. How hard he fights will show what he's made of, and where his true loyalty lies.

The green that runs through Tallahassee is a different shade than algae, but it's just as slimy to the touch.

© 2017 Miami Herald

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