Big Sugar-backed changes to Florida’s Everglades restoration requirements won initial approval Thursday, despite environmental objections to potentially shielding agriculture from more water pollution cleanup costs.
Environmental groups warned that proposed changes to the Everglades Forever act, which cleared the House State Affairs Committee Thursday, threaten to make it harder to force Big Sugar and other growers to clean up more of the polluting phosphorus that flows off farmland and ends up in the Everglades.
The proposed changes could also cap the Everglades cleanup taxes levied on agriculture south of Lake Okeechobee at a time when environmental groups are pushing to require Big Sugar and other growers to pick up more of the multi-billion-dollar Everglades restoration costs.
“It absolves the sugar industry from having to do anything more to clean up their own mess,” said Eric Draper, Audubon of Florida executive director. He called the bill a “stinker.”
Sugar industry representatives dispute the environmental objections, saying that farmers already pay their fair share and that the legislative changes are needed to lay the groundwork for a new Everglades restoration plan endorsed by agriculture and environmentalists alike.
“I don’t understand what they gain by trying to [create] roadblocks,” U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez said about environmental objections.
Lawmakers contend that the legislation remains early in the approval process and changes could be made before it comes up for a House vote.
State Rep. Matthew Caldwell, R-Leigh Acres, who backed the legislation, said he was bothered by the “cast in stone” fight between environmentalists and agriculture and said that Everglades restoration is Florida’s “shared responsibility.”
Environmental groups object to suggestions in the House legislation that growers’ existing “best management practices” are doing enough to reduce the influx of polluting phosphorus. The environmental groups contend that the proposed legislation could nullify attempts to add cleanup requirements for farmland.
Opponents also object to the legislation keeping the Everglades restoration cleanup tax levied on growers south of Lake Okeechobee at $25 per acre per year.
Environmental groups blame agriculture for causing most of the water pollution in the Everglades and have called for the state to force growers to pick up more of the restoration tab.
“We have concerns,” said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation, who Thursday asked lawmakers not to approve the changes. “Let’s get it right. Let’s not rush into something.”
Sugar industry backers contend that existing pollution cleanup requirements imposed on South Florida growers are already exceeding goals. They also say that agriculture is already paying its fair share through the taxes imposed on growers in the Everglades Agricultural Area, which has generated about $200 million for restoration.
The proposed changes to the Everglades Forever Act come as Gov. Rick Scott pushes a new restoration plan intended get more clean water to the Everglades and settle years of federal court battles over failures to meet water quality standards in the famed River of Grass.
The new $880 million restoration plan calls for building new stormwater storage and treatment areas along with other improvements over more than a decade.
The total cost goes up to $1.5 billion when factoring in $700 million already spent on farmland and unfinished reservoirs from past sidetracked Everglades restoration projects.
Taxpayers could get stuck with too much of that tab if the Big Sugar-backed changes to state law get approved, according to the environmental groups.
“This is also about fairness,” said Charles Pattison, president of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Florida. “It is also about accountability.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun