August 15, 2016

Environmentalist's remarks rile water managers who attack with tax talking points

Old World climbing fernIn a press release proclaiming that South Florida residents should "Get the Facts," the South Florida Water Management District moved from neutral regulator to attack dog Monday using a press release to criticize Audubon of Florida for disagreeing with the district's decision to rollback property taxes instead of paying for invasive species control in the Arthur Marshall National Wildlife Refuge.

Audubon of Florida executive director Eric Draper appeared before the governing board at its meeting last week and urged it to use money from reserve funds to address what district officials say is an emergency situation in which an infestation of invasive Old World climbing fern is threatening to collapse the tree canopy.

"It is absolutely an emergency, but you have the resources,'' Draper told the governing board. "And it is your land. Fund it."

He added that if the district chooses not to use the money in its reserves, the board could also "change your mind about rolling back the millage" rate and use the increase in property tax collections, generated by the increase in property values, to pay for the emergency. 

"It is not an appropriate or smart strategy to say to Congress, which is cutting its budget and struggling with a federal deficit, to spend that money when you are not willing to increase the amount of money you are spending to control that,'' he said. 

SFWMD executive director Pete Antonacci replied. He said the district has spent $2.3 million to control the invasive plant, also known as Lygodium microphyllum"Money that you are under no obligation to spend and still we have not seen our federal colleagues to do something similar,'' he said.

Draper's remarks hit a nerve. Rather than direct the blame at the federal government, which the district says is violating a provision in the 2002 management agreement that requires it to control exotic plants, the SFWMD used its press release to turn the focus on taxes, and blast Draper for suggesting the state shouldn't wait for the federal government. 

"Audubon Florida is asking the SFWMD Governing Board to raise taxes to make up for the federal government's failure to control an infestation of invasive Old World climbing fern in the Refuge,'' the release said. 

Taxes have been one of the most important messages coming out of the district under Gov. Rick Scott. Last year, as property values rose another $21 million in the district, the former head of the SFWMD, Blake Guillory, proposed ending the practice of cutting back taxes and leaving the tax rate alone to keep the district from dipping into reserves to pay for its projects. 

Within two weeks, the board of governors reversed the decision and Guillory was forced to resign. The board replaced him with Scott's general counsel, Antonacci. 

The district's Monday "Get the Facts" did not mention all the facts, including that that Audubon of Florida is supportive of the district but wants it to work with the federal government, that the district wants $25 million over three years from Congress to attack the problem, and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has an annual budget of $1 million for exotic plant control and has spent another $1 million over the last three years for invasive plant control at the refuge.

Randy Smith, spokesperson for the district, defended the attack on Audubon as "factual information that is pertinent for the taxpayers to understand." 

He said that Draper wanted "to let the federal government slide" and that the press release was signed off on by the district's executive team, including Antonacci.

Draper responded. 

"Enough fighting,'' he said in a statement to the Herald/Times. "State and federal agencies need to work together to solve Florida’s invasive species problems.  The district has money in its budget and under its spending caps to manage its land.  And, yes, taking care of a special place like the Arthur Marshall National Wildlife Refuge might be more important than cutting taxes this year."

The attack jarred others in the environmental community. 

"I can't recall a state agency targeting a non-profit organization before,'' said Jonathan Ullman of Sierra Club of South Florida. "A public agency saying that 'Audubon Florida wants to raise your taxes,' is over the line,'' he said, noting that Sierra Club has been a target of a similar attack.

"I don't know who or what is behind 'Just the Facts,' but these emails are entirely inappropriate. The agency has become an attack dog, rather than a public service."

Here is the text of the SFWMD press release: 

Continue reading "Environmentalist's remarks rile water managers who attack with tax talking points" »

August 13, 2016

Rubio doesn't support Negron's plan to buy sugar land for Everglades clean-up 'until we finish' existing projects

Marco Rubio, MHBy @MaryEllen Klas and @JackSuntrup
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said Saturday that he is not prepared to support a proposal unveiled this week by incoming Senate President Joe Negron to spend $2.4 billion in state and federal money to buy sugar land south of Lake Okeechobee to store water in an attempt to minimize the polluted discharges that have spawned toxic algae blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.
Rubio, who was in Brandon Saturday morning for the opening of Republican Party of Florida field office, said he will not support federal funds for more projects until the state and federal government "finish the Central Everglades Planning Project because we're not going to get both."
"We are in a competition with 49 other states for water money and if we keep coming up with new projects, what these other states will say to us is, 'Well, we're not going to fund your programs until you guys down there figure out what you really want','' he said.
The state is waiting for Congress to authorize CEPP, a program that is designed to reduce damaging freshwater releases to the estuaries and send more of that water, cleaned of phosphorus, to the estuaries of Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. The plan would also increase the water supply for municipal, industrial and agricultural users.
But, according to a 2015 report by the University of Florida Water Institute commissioned by the Florida Senate, CEPP "produces only relatively modest improvements in high flow conditions [to offset discharges from Lake Okeechobee] and almost no improvement in very high flow conditions for the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee." The report also noted that "even using the most optimistic assumptions, CEPP is not estimated to be complete for a minimum of 24 years."
Negron, R-Stuart, said last week that the state was facing an "environmental emergency" and buying land south of the lake in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area is one of the essential components of solving the dilemma. The increased release of phosphorus-laden discharges from the lake into the estuaries as part of the flood control efforts needed to manage the Everglades' "river of grass" have led to repeated algae blooms over the years, with this year's the worst on record. 
“Everyone who has looked at this issue, who has studied it, agrees we have to have storage south of the lake as a piece of the puzzle and a way to prevent these discharges,'' Negron said at a news conference to announce his proposal on Tuesday.
He also said that he has spoken to Rubio and believes that his proposal is "separate and apart" from the previous calls for the purchase of sugar land. 
"My sense in talking to members of Congress and Sen. Rubio is that everyone understands that the status quo is unacceptable that something has to be done,'' Negron said. He choose not to respond to Rubio's comments Saturday. 
Negron's plan calls for spending $2.4 billion to buy an estimated 60,000 acres of land in the heart of the Everglades Agricultural Area to store and clean water before releasing it into Everglades National Park and Florida Bay. 
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said Negron's plan is important to work in tandem with the Central Everglades Planning Process. 

"CEPP is more about treatment and conveyance.  The Negron proposal is about storage,'' he said Saturday. "CEPP is not designed to take water from the Lake in the wet season, so storage is needed.

Rubio, however, said he was prepared to wait for CEPP to be completed first.
"Let's get that done first. And once we have that done, once the money's in hand, if there's more to be done then we'll continue to work on more. But I think this continued coming up with new projects at the federal level is going to cost us both. We're not going to get either and that would be disastrous. So hopefully we can move forward on that."
Draper said that by delaying the purchase of land for storage, as Rubio suggests, could exacerbate the damage to coastal areas "for at least a decade" instead of improving them.
Draper noted that Congress in 2000 committed to funding for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan approved by Congress and it calls for the purchase of land to store and clean phosphorus-laden water before releasing it into Everglades National Park. A project in the plan, known as ”EAA reservoirs and storage" calls for storing roughly 120 billion gallons of water, the same as Negron’s proposal, and is scheduled for planning in 2020. While most coastal and Everglades advocates would like to move the schedule up, the South Florida Water Management District has opposed that, Draper said. 
Rubio's comments underscore the difficulty Negron faces in his quest to jump start the debate over buying up sugar land south of the lake as pivotal component of Everglades restoration and algae control. The efforts to buy land in the heart of the EAA for water storage south has been demanded by environmentalists since Congress approved CERP, but efforts to buy the land needed for the project have been sidelined in the face of agriculture and sugar-industry opposition.
Florida sugar cane growers last week raised concerns about Negron's plan, noting that the two parcels he identified could remove from production the supply of available farm land needed to fuel the industry's profit centers, their sugar mills.
Negron, however, has indicated he is open to discussing other areas.
Here is a transcript of Rubio's full statement, when asked if he would support $1.2 billion in federal funding for Negron's proposal:

Continue reading "Rubio doesn't support Negron's plan to buy sugar land for Everglades clean-up 'until we finish' existing projects" »

August 11, 2016

Legal challenge threatens to delay, possibly derail, controversial toxin rule

Water toxinsFlorida environmentalists are hoping that a legal challenge by the Seminole Tribe of Florida will provide the catalyst needed to force state regulators to redo a controversial rule that raises some of the legal toxin levels allowed to be dumped into Florida's drinking waters.

The Seminole Tribe filed its lawsuit Monday with the state Division of Administrative Hearings, arguing that the new Human Health Toxics Criteria Rule, which was narrowly approved by the Environmental Regulation Commission July 26, could endanger the health of the tribe's members.

The lawsuit effectively delays the ability of state regulators to submit the rule to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for approval. It also gives environmentalists more time to pressure Gov. Rick Scott and state regulators to fix what they consider flaws in the rule that passed by a 3-2 margin.  Download Seminole petition

"This rule will not reach EPA for many months now,'' said Linda Young, president of the Florida Clean Water Network in a letter to supporters late Wednesday. "Our focus will be on getting the public educated on what’s happening and getting people to speak out against increasing toxic chemicals in our waters and the fish we eat."

In the meanwhile, Young said her group are asking that the governor appoint three new commissioners to the seven-member ERC board.

There are currently two vacancies on the board, one intended for a representative of the environmental community and another for a representative of local government. Young said they also want Scott to replace commissioner Craig Varn, the former DEP general counsel who was appointed to the board by Scott in March to serve as a "lay person." 

"He is a plant, a ringer,'' Young said.

Environmentalists believe that had Scott filled the empty posts the commission would have rejected the rule. They are also demanding that more public workshops be held around the state to increase the public's awareness of the controversial proposal. DEP conducted workshops around the state but none were held in the two most populous counties, Miami-Dade and Broward. 

The tribe argued that the rule should not only be invalidated because the agency's decision to move up the scheduled date of the ERC vote violated the state's required 28-day hearing notice, but the tribe also wants the rule rejected because of its potentially adverse effect on the tribe's "subsistence" fishermen who rely on fish from Florida's rivers and streams as a primary source of protein.

The new rule imposes limits on 39 additional toxins and updates the allowed limits on 43 other chemicals dumped into Florida’s rivers, streams and coastal waters, including allowing for higher levels of chemicals with carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. 

"The technical supporting document for this rule is devoid of any consideration of tribal fish consumption rates for subsistence purposes,'' the lawsuit reads. "The Seminole Tribal members’ subsistence consumption rate is over 140 grams of fish per week. That is 5 times greater than the consumption rate used for the proposed rule."

A hearing was quickly set in the case for Sept. 6 and 7 and environmentalists hope the judge will either order the Department of Environmental Protection to reverse the rule, or order a new hearing to revise it.

The rule was scheduled to be submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency for approval but DEP said Thursday it cannot submit the rule until the lawsuit is resolved.

August 09, 2016

Negron announces new top priority: buying sugar land for Everglades clean-up

EvergladesIn what environmentalists are calling a significant breakthrough in Everglades restoration efforts, incoming Senate President Joe Negron leapfrogged over agricultural industry opposition and on Tuesday called for a massive $2.4 billion state and federal land-buying program to buy sugar land to store water south of Lake Okeechobee and repair the fragile Everglades ecosystem.

The idea — to store and clean phosphorus-laden water before releasing it into Everglades National Park — has been demanded by environmentalists for the past 16 years, but efforts to buy the land needed for the project have been sidelined in the face of agriculture and sugar-industry opposition. Instead, lawmakers and water management district officials have pursued clean-up projects on the periphery of the Everglades Agricultural Area, not in the heart of the region, which could displace working farmland.

“All the evidence that I see confirms what I'm here to announce today: We must buy land south,”' Negron said to loud applause at a press conference in his hometown, Stuart.

Negron’s announcement comes after a summer of polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie estuaries have led to toxic algae blooms along the state’s Treasure Coast and in his hometown.

Negron, a Republican, announced that ending the discharges and finding the funds for the land-buy south of the lake would be his “No. 1 personal priority.” More here. 

Here's Negron's press release:

Continue reading "Negron announces new top priority: buying sugar land for Everglades clean-up" »

August 01, 2016

How safe is Florida's drinking water? How often are polluted waters tested? What about private wells?

How safe is Florida’s drinking water?

The agency charged with protecting it says it’s very safe, especially with the approval this week of a new rule that imposes limits on 39 additional toxins and updates the allowed limits on 43 other chemicals dumped into Florida’s rivers, streams and coastal waters.

“Each and every criterion protects Floridians, according to both EPA and the World Health Organization,” the Department of Environmental Regulation said last week after the governor’s Environmental Regulation Commission approved the new water quality rule on a narrow 3-2 vote.

But environmentalists are so convinced that Florida’s water will be further harmed, they are ready to go to war.

They say that new rules allow for higher levels of carcinogens and chemicals that can disrupt natural hormones to be discharged into Florida waters than current standards. They claim that weak enforcement by the Department of Environmental Protection already fails to shield Florida’s drinking water from infiltration by health-harming contaminants and, if the new rules are approved by the federal government, more clean-up will be needed.

“That policy now says that more Floridians are expendable to cancer and other serious health diseases in order for industries to be more profitable,” said Linda Young, executive director of the Florida Clean Water Network, which tried and failed to get the commission to reject DEP’s proposed rule. A look the regulations, testing and exposure here.  

July 28, 2016

Should FPL's retire its controversial nuke cooling canals? Report makes the case

Fpl plantFlorida Power & Light should retire its miles of cooling canals used to cool its Turkey Point nuclear power plant, and replace them with cooling towers that release less pollution into South Florida waterways and use less fresh water, a clean-energy group argued Thursday as part of its campaign to force the utility to reform its practices.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which is suing FPL for violating the Clean Water Act, suggests that if the state’s largest electric company replaces its one-of-a-kind canal network, the switch would help Miami-Dade County meet its goal of recycling wastewater and reduce the threat to South Florida’s drinking water supply.

The estimated cost of the change: $59 million to $79 million per year over a 10-year period, an increase of 1.5 percent to 2 percent in the energy costs charged to customers, said Bill Powers, of San Diego-based Powers Engineering, which produced the report for SACE. The project would take about four years to complete, he said.

County environmental regulators have found that the saltier, heavier water flowing from FPL’s nuclear plant through more than 5,900 acres of canals has leaked downward, pushing a line of saltwater inland toward South Florida’s drinking water supply. Regulators also have discovered canal water, laced with non-threatening amounts of radioactive tritium, has leaked into Biscayne Bay.

Replacing the cooling canals with cooling towers is a “no-regret system,” said Stephen A. Smith, executive director for SACE, an organization that calls the cooling canals “an open industrial sewer, wedged between two national parks."

"FPL knows this technology is the best technology and they should have implemented it a long time ago,’’ he told reporters Thursday. “This is actually going to stop, to abate, the pollution source.”

The proposal to retire the cooling canals adds ammunition to a resolution passed unanimously by the Miami-Dade County Commission last week asking FPL to stop using the troubled canal system by 2033.

FPL has not agreed to the county’s request. In June it signed a consent order with the state agreeing to clean up the polluted canals within 10 years but keep them operating.

After that, if the company seeks to renew its license for the current nuclear reactors beyond 2033, FPL will consider “any potential alternative cooling technologies, which would logically include cooling towers,” said Peter Robbins, manager of nuclear communications for FPL.

Robbins blasted SACE as an “anti-utility, anti-nuclear political group” that should “not be trusted.”

Continue reading "Should FPL's retire its controversial nuke cooling canals? Report makes the case" »

Diaz de la Portilla joins Rodriguez in call for Scott to fill environmental vacancies and reject toxin rule

Water toxins
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said late Wednesday he will ask Gov. Rick Scott to fill the two vacancies on the Environmental Regulation Commission and ask the board to reevaluate its decision, made Tuesday, to increase the limits on cancer causing substances in Florida's drinking water sources.

"I stand in opposition to the Environmental Regulation Commission's vote to approve new water standards that permit increases in the levels of several known carcinogens in Florida’s waterways,'' the senator said in the statement. "While some aspects of the proposal are positive, including the regulation of 39 chemicals not currently regulated by the state, other aspects of the proposal are simply unacceptable."

Diaz de la Portilla, a Republican from Miami, took the unusual break from the Republican governor on an issue that has caused enormous concern among environmentalists. He is in a competitive re-election race in a newly-drawn Senate District 37. He faces state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez who was among several Miami-Dade officials who spoke in opposition to the rule and last week sent a letter to Scott urging him to postpone the vote until he filled the vacancies. The governor did not respond to the letter.  Download Dade Elected Official Letter to DEP on Toxic Levels_72116 (1)

Diaz de la Portilla noted that had the governor filled the two vacancies -- one for a person representing environmentalists and another representing local government -- the measure may not have passed 3-2.

"I cannot help but think that the vote would have not been 3-2 in favor, but 4-3 against, had a full commission been given the chance to vote on this proposal,'' Diaz de la Portilla said.

Here's Diaz de la Portilla's statement: 

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July 27, 2016

Genting seeks deal to accelerate Biscayne-based marina, despite county's manatee protections

via @AndresViglucci

Casino operator Genting, which has been seeking permits for a 50-yacht marina at its property at the old Miami Herald site in downtown Miami since 2013, has floated an unusual proposal to Miami-Dade County environmental regulators to goose approval of the slow-moving application.

It’s asking the county’s Department of Regulatory and Economic Resources to allow the company to transfer existing boat-slip permits from properties on the Miami River owned by a scion of the Matheson family — something county regulators say has never been done.

Under the county’s manatee protection plan, which strictly limits construction of new powerboat slips in the river and bay to protect the endangered marine mammals and their habitat, Genting subsidiary Resorts World Miami is eligible for no more than eight slips at the Herald site, assuming that it could win approval from the hard-to-satisfy regulators.

In a July 5 letter to the county, though, Resorts World’s consultant, Kirk Lofgren of Ocean Consulting, outlined a proposal to transfer 42 slip permits now attached to Austral Marina — which Lofgren owns — and three parcels owned by Finlay Matheson on which he operates a marina and has leased out space to Apex Marine, a repair and maintenance boatyard. Matheson is a prominent descendant of the family that gave the land for Crandon Park on Key Biscayne to the county in exchange for construction of the Rickenbacker Causeway, and that also donated a portion of the land for Matheson Hammock Park. Story here. 

July 25, 2016

DEP responds, says federal government has 'confirmed' rules to increase toxins in water

On the eve of a decision by the Environmental Regulation Commission to increase the allowable level of many toxins in Florida's drinking water, Florida's environmental secretary said that the federal government has "confirmed every change is in line with its own recommendations."

“Our number one priority is to continuously protect and preserve the health of Florida’s families, visitors and incredible natural resources,'' wrote Department of Environmental Regulation Secretary Jon Steverson in a statement released late Monday.

"It is with this mission in mind, that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, alongside the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), are strengthening Florida's water-quality standards. Moving forward with the proposed criteria will nearly double the number of chemicals that the department will be able to regulate using stringent and protective criteria so we can continue to provide better public health protection for our state."

Meanwhile, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, an environmental group, sent a letter urging the panel to reject the new rules. 

"When it comes to the release of dangerous pollutants into our water supply It is important that we proceed with the utmost caution,'' wrote Laura Reynolds, an energy and water speciialist with the group. "Many of these chemicals are highly carcinogenic, and may result in the development of cancer clusters (geographic areas in which a greater-than-expected number of people develop malignant cancers) in some communities."

Here's more of the DEP statement and the Q and A that followed: 

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Democrats wants state panel to reject plan to allow more toxic chemicals in Florida drinking water

Polluted evergladesAs a state panel prepares to decide Tuesday whether to allow polluters to increase the level of toxic chemicals they dump into Florida rivers and lakes, Democrats in Florida's congressional delegation is urging regulators to reject the rule.

The governor-appointed Environmental Regulatory Commission will vote on a rule proposed by state regulators that would increase the number of regulated chemicals allowed in drinking water from 54 to 92 chemicals. 

The chemicals are among those released by oil and gas drilling companies (including fracking operations), dry cleaning companies, pulp and paper producers, wastewater treatment plants and agriculture doing business in Florida. Many of these industries have come out in support of the new rule.

Environmentalists say the change is illogical and dangerous. The Department of Environmental Regulation, which proposed the rule, says it is a long-overdue update required under the federal Clean Water Act. The agency last updated the list of regulated toxic chemicals in 1992 and began working on the new proposal in 2012, after years of review, said Dee Ann Miller, DEP spokesperson. Story here.

But Florida's Democrats in Congress say the proposal "would threaten Florida’s ecosystems and compromise Floridians’ health and livelihoods."

Here's their statement:

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