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The Everglades "blunder'

Leave it to Marjory Stoneman Douglas, 103, author of the 1947 classic River of Grass, founder of the Friends of the Everglades, and namesake of a three-year-old state law, to lay it on the line.

The Marjory Stoneman Douglas Everglades Protection Act, passed in 1991 amid legislative backslapping and claims of environmental victory, was "a blunder," she says. And in a letter to Gov. Lawton Chiles, she now insists her name be removed from it: "The act and now the new proposed amendments to it are directly contrary to the goals and policies of my organization . . . which I founded in 1969 to protect and restore the precious Everglades."

Ms. Douglas is right, and the contorted posturing that has followed the release of her letter suggests it hit some politicians square in the gut. Good.

Though Florida has made substantial efforts in the past decade to save the Everglades from a slow poisoning, it has failed the basic test of intestinal fortitude. The state has given up public lands to act as a sewer for dirty farm water and spent public money to build a system of water pumping apparatus, but it has failed at the bottom line: to hold the polluter accountable.

In the case of the Everglades, the pollution comes largely from sugar farms to the north. The sugar growers pump millions of gallons of contaminated water southward, into the Everglades, and the effect is hardly surprising. But the sugar industry has never been held responsible. Instead, it uses a portion of its highly profitable business to buy lobbyists in Washington and Tallahassee, and it continues to enjoy federal price supports and state regulatory exemption. What other business in Florida could pump polluted water onto its neighbor's property and get away with it?

Chiles, after scarcely mentioning the Everglades in his State of the State speech last month, is now calling on lawmakers to press forward with new pollution reductions. That's progress, but, despite his get-tough rhetoric, he is asking for a pollution standard that will continue to let harmful nutrients seep into the Everglades and he still refuses to make the industry pay the real cost of cleanup or to use much farmland for filtering pollution.

In fact, the best Everglades solution being proposed in the Capitol this year, a bill filed by Sen. Curt Kiser, R-Palm Harbor, is being fought by the administration. Chiles, for some reason, claims he must abide by a never-signed, never-fully documented agreement with the sugar industry, though the industry itself has reneged.

The sugar lobbyists are out in force again this year, and they are trying, in the guise of Everglades cleanup, to get lawmakers to limit the industry's liability. At the same time, some lawmakers, including Senate Natural Resources Committee Chairman Robert Wexler, seem all too eager to oblige. Wexler's committee meets today, and the public will get a chance to see whether the industry will rule once again this year. Kiser, who offers an Everglades plan that may finally get the industry's attention, is not ready to concede another round to Big Sugar.

"I keep telling people here, "If you want to just get something to pass, that's fine,' " Kiser says. "But if it doesn't work, what have you accomplished?"

Kiser has joined hands with a public-interest group that now has collected more than 250,000 signatures in an effort to force change in the Everglades. The group wants a penny-per-pound sugar tax that would provide money and impetus to save the Everglades, and the politicians who are not ready to draw the line with Big Sugar may find that voters will draw it for them.

The punch that Marjory Stoneman Douglas delivered last week may not be the last.

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