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Big Sugar fliers sent to South Florida voters strike sour note with environmentalists


A Big Sugar ad campaign has struck a sour note with environmentalists.

In fliers mailed to thousands of South Florida homes and a television spot, the industry touts legislation signed by Gov. Rick Scott in May that extends a $25-an-acre tax on cane fields to help pay for an $880 million expansion of projects to reduce the flow of farm pollution flowing in the Everglades, as a "historic partnership" with environmentalists and the state that will "put the final phase of restoration into place."

The ad boasts that "smart farming techniques" have helped preserve the Everglades and proclaims farmers the "largest private funders of Everglades restoration" with some $400 million invested in the effort to date.

The state's three largest growers -- Florida Crystals, U.S. Sugar and the Florida Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative -- bankrolled the ad targeting key communities and residents in South Florida, said Brian Hughes, president of Tallahassee-based Meteoric Media Strategies, which created the ad. He wouldn't discuss the cost or say how many people will get fliers but called it a "modest" effort.

"It's not uncommon for coalitions and businesses to reach out in whatever media form to make sure people understand the facts,'' said Hughes. "The sugar are proud of the work they have put in to be part of the solution.''

Two environmental leaders quoted in the flier supporting the legislation -- Eric Draper of Florida Audubon and Eric Eikenberg of the Everglades Foundation -- aren't exactly on board with its message. Both had caught flack from some activists who wanted the industry to pay more for massive pollution-scrubbing artificial marshes that have already cost the state some $1.2 billion.

Draper said the ad told only "half of the story." Environmentalists, for instance, have long argued that the industry "smart" techiques could be even smart and reduce the slug of phosphorus, a damaging nutrient, washed off fields with every storm. They also argue South Florida taxpayers, not the industry, has been stuck with the bulk of the clean-up costs through taxes paid to the South Florida Water Management District.

Eikenberg, chief executive office of The Foundation, also said the bill addresses only one part of restoration efforts - water quality - and is far from the "final phase." There are billions of dollars of pending project to boost the water supply needed to revive the Glades, including a critical project for the Central Everglades that needs support from water managers but has been questioned by the industry. Water managers face a key vote on the project next week.

"To put out a flier and say we are in the final stage of restoration is disingenuous and it's a typical tactic that the sugar industry plays,'' said Eikenberg.