July 11, 2016

Sugar's sweet grip: $57.8 million in campaign cash over last two decades

Sugar caneFifteen years after Jeb Bush and Bill Clinton reached a landmark accord to revive the Everglades, billions of dollars have been spent but not much marsh has been restored, and the River of Grass continues to cycle through the same familiar struggles.

Disastrous algae blooms foul coastal estuaries. Seagrass die-offs plague Florida Bay. High water threatens the Lake Okeechobee dike. Everglades marshes drown under too much water or wither under too little. All the ecological crises of this summer are just déjà vu, all over again.

But a review of the key decision points by Florida policymakers over the last two decades shows that one key player in the fate of the Everglades has grown healthier and stronger: Big Sugar.

The industry, one of the largest producers of phosphorus-laden pollutants in the Glades, has rung up a string of political successes while recording bumper harvests in recent years. That influence has not come cheaply.

Between 1994 and 2016, a review of state Division of Elections records by The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau shows, the sugar industry — led by United States Sugar and Florida Crystals — has steered a whopping $57.8 million in direct and in-kind contributions to state and local political campaigns. (The total does not include federal contributions.) Story here. 

July 08, 2016

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen files bill to study rising seas' effects on coral reefs


Here's something noteworthy: A Republican lawmaker has proposed legislation dealing with one of the effects of sea-level rise.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami introduced a bill -- dubbed, yes, the "CORAL Act" -- that would widen the scope of coral-reef research to include "the impacts of ocean acidification, warming seas and invasive species." The law would also allow the federal government to more quickly respond to problems like coral disease and bleaching, and give agencies a more active role in restoring reefs.

The GOP has been reluctant to take on sea-level rise, but the issue is unavoidable for South Florida Republicans with coastal districts, such as Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Carlos Curbelo, who signed on to the coral bill. Both face opponents who have stressed climate change as a key issue.

"Having fled the oppressive Castro regime in Cuba with my parents decades ago, I know that South Florida is special because it serves as a place of hope for so many," Ros-Lehtinen said on the House floor Wednesday. "We cannot allow changing ocean conditions to rob us of our livelihoods, of our lifestyle, or of our identity as an optimistic community."


July 06, 2016

Gov. Rick Scott promises to seek state/local money to replace septic systems

Faced with an environmental disaster now attracting international headlines, Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday announced he will seek "additional funding" in his budget next year aimed at replacing leaking septic tanks that are believed to be one of the sources of the polluted run-off causing the outbreak of blue-green algae coating the coastlines of Martin and St. Lucie counties.  

Scott did not specify the amount of taxpayer money he is willing to seek to stem the pollution that has led to a stinky toxic sludge coming from the Indian River Lagoon and Caloosahatchee River. The governor said his proposal will include new funding for a 50/50 matching grant program "with local communities surrounding the water bodies affected by algae blooms resulting from the frequent discharges of Lake Okeechobee."

The governor's press release said it would be a voluntary program designed "to encourage people to move from septic tanks to sewer systems" but he made no mention of requiring any change to water quality standards imposed on sugar-cane and other farmers whose land has also been cited as the source of the polluted run-off. 

For years, septic tank run-off has been identified as a major problem contributing to the pollution in the state's waterways in springs. After years of effort, environmentally-conscious lawmakers passed a bill in 2010 requiring the inspections of all 2.6 million septic tanks every five years and they banned the land application of septic tank waste. 

But after Scott was elected in 2011, homeowners and Tea Party groups complained about the septic tank law and the $400 cost of the septic tank inspections. Septic tank waste haulers and legislators representing rural counties complained that the septic tank ban could the to the skyrocketing costs of septic tank clean-outs.

In 2011, the Legislature and the governor repealed the requirement on septic tank inspections and in 2012 lawmakers delayed the ban on septic tank waste. Now, septic tank owners aren't required to have their systems inspected unless their current septic tank is modified or replaced and public health officials say they do not know how many septic tanks are failing in Florida. 

Meanwhile, a 2012 study by the Everglades Foundation concluded that 76 percent of the phosphorus entering the Everglades comes from agricultural lands south of Lake Okeechobee but the agricultural polluters were paying only $200 million -- or 24 percent -- of their share of the clean-up costs. 

Scott has steered blame to the Army Corps of Engineers, which has managed the water levels of Lake Okeechobee by releasing billions of gallons of water polluted from agricultural back-pumping and ground water runoff into the St. Lucie Canal and the Caloosahatchee River.

Scott argues that the discharge is needed to keep water levels low in the lake because the federal government failed to strengthen the Hoover Dike but environmentalists say that reason is too simplistic, arguing that higher water levels could also do damage to the lake's fragile ecosystem. 

“Every day, millions of gallons of water continue to be discharged into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries by the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers after years of the federal government failing to repair the federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike,'' Scott said in the statement.

"While the state has continued to step up and invest in important restoration projects to help South Florida waterways, it is clear that more work has to be done.  It is up to all of us – the state, Florida’s local communities and the federal government – to work together on long term solutions to improve the quality of our water."  



July 01, 2016

Rubio's lagoon visit to check out algae prompts critics to ask why he didn't pay attention before

via @learyreports

"Indian River Lagoon advocates ask: Where is Rubio?"

That was a TCpalm headline in September 2014, which began, “During this summer’s Indian River Lagoon crisis, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — Florida’s most notable name on Capitol Hill — was neither vocal nor visible on the issue.”

Today, Rubio makes a visit to the area, a trip in his official capacity but one that serves his re-election campaign. Critics on both sides today called him out.

“Now that he’s surrounded by campaign photographers, Marco Rubio has suddenly found the time to address the toxic environmental strain that has been choking Florida waterways for years,” said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Max Steele. “What else could Floridians expect for a part-time Senator who abandoned the challenges facing the Sunshine State to pursue his presidential ambitions?”

GOP primary opponent Carlos Beruff issued a release laced with links to news articles and columns about Rubio’s absence on the water issue.

“From his absence during the lost summer of 2013 to his broken promise to hold regular discussions with stakeholders, Marco Rubio has failed to use his time and position in Washington to solve the problems impacting the Indian River Lagoon,” spokesman Chris Hardline said. “If Treasure Coast residents want a senator who will visit them every year and is committed to using his business experience to solve Florida’s problems, they should vote for Carlos Beruff. If they want more of the same inaction, then No-Show Marco is their man.”

Rubio is to hold a news conference about 11:45 a.m. His office in a news release noted how he wrote a letter urging the Army Corps to “take immediate action, including stopping discharges from Lake Okeechobee, to help Florida’s Treasure Coast.”

Rubio did pay a visit to the area before, but it came after mounting criticism that he was MIA.

--ALEX LEARY, Tampa Bay Times

June 29, 2016

Environmentalists question Nelson, Rubio move on Biscayne National Park

via @jenstaletovich

A marine preserve in Biscayne National Park — a key piece of a new management plan 15 years in the making and designed to protect Florida’s dwindling reef tract — may be derailed by a new bill proposed by Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio.

The bill, proposed Friday and fast-tracked through a committee hearing, would undo the preserve and require the National Park Service to consult with Florida wildlife managers, who opposed the preserve.

“This is a reasonable bill that will ensure the park consults with the state and uses the best available science moving forward,” Nelson said.

Rubio called the bill, dubbed the Access to Sportsfishing Act of 2016, a “model to address the proposed closure.”

But environmentalists say the rare move by Congress sets a dangerous precedent “that would block the National Park Service from doing its legal authority to protect America’s national park,” said Caroline McLaughlin, Biscayne program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

More here.

Nelson wants feds to act on 'bright neon-green' beach waters




Sen. Bill Nelson fired off a letter Wednesday asking federal officials to release more water from Lake Okeechobee into the Everglades and take other steps to stem the green algae washing up on Treasure Coast beaches.

Nelson acted a day after Martin County commissioners asked the state and federal governments to declare an environmental disaster while urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to close the locks between Florida's largest freshwater lake and the St. Lucie River.

"To strongly prevent this environmental and economic crisis from spreading, I strongly urge the Army Corps of Engineers to take immediate action," Nelson wrote to Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works.

Nelson added: "The water washing up on the beaches in Martin County, Florida, is bright neon-green. Officials there are concerned about potential health risks associated with the blue-green algae plume forming off their coast and have closed several South Florida beaches as a result, just days before the popular Fourth of July holiday."

The corps regularly releases water from the lake's western and eastern outlets into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers in order to keep its levels no higher than 15.5 feet above sea level, but heavy rainfall has kept the level at 15 feet.

Saying that business owners along the coast "could incur significant financial losses" if visitors avoid the algae-laden beaches and waterways, Nelson asked Darcy to raise the water level in the L-29 canal north of the Tamiani Trail between Miami and Tampa.

The rest of Nelson's letter is here.



June 22, 2016

Florida regulators give FPL 10 years to clean up polluted plume threatening drinking water

FPL salt at turkey pointvia @JenStaletovich

Florida Power & Light will have 10 years to clean up a massive underground plume of saltwater threatening drinking water well fields near its Turkey Point plant under a deal struck with state environmental regulators.

In a 25-page order issued Monday, the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation spelled out a plan that requires the utility to begin freshening and improving the efficiency of the 5,900-acre loop of canals used to cool two nuclear reactors at the plant. The plan also requires FPL to install a network of extraction wells to halt and ultimately shrink the plume, which has migrated more than five miles inland over the decades.

To ensure the measures work, DEP officials included periodic milestones that require the utility to provide evidence that the salt front is retreating.

But even with checkpoints built in, critics who have pushed the state for more oversight say plenty of questions remain over whether the plan goes far enough or works fast enough. Story here. 

June 02, 2016

Group highlights financial ties between Pam Bondi and opponents of the Clean Power Plan

Pam BondiThe liberal advocacy group, Americans United For Change, is out with a new report highlighting the financial ties between Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, and other Republican attorneys general, and the oil, gas and utilities industries as they fight to block enforcement of the Obama administration's Clean Power Plan.

According to calculations by FollowTheMoney,org, the report says Bondi collected $26,350 from the energy industries in the 2010 and 2014 election cycles. A closer look by the Herald/Times however, shows the figure is much higher - at least $75,000 just for the 2014 cycle. (The figure could potentially be hundreds of thousands more if donations to shadowy pass-through groups were required to be disclosed.)

Bondi joined with 23 other states, including a handful run by Democratic governors, and last year filed a lawsuit against the EPA to block the implementation of a rule by Environmental Protection Agency. The August rule revised the Clean Power Plan to impose the first-ever carbon limits on power plants. It required a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. power plants by 32 percent by 2030, based on 2005 levels, and is aggressively opposed by the oil, gas and utility industries. 

Bondi and others argued that the EPA rule lays out an "unrealistic" timeframe to cut carbon emissions by 2030 and would "require the use of costly and unproven technologies." (Here are the goals for Florida, according to the EPA.)

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay on the implementation of the plan in February but the lawsuit continues. Meanwhile, a recent poll by Bloomberg Philanthropies -- run by the former New York mayor who supports the EPA rule -- found that 73 percent of Florida voters support the Clean Power Plan. 

Now, Americans for Change claims that the legal officers who were opposing the rule were doing it not to help their constituents, but to advance the agendas of the utility, oil and gas industry. 

"Republican attorneys general are doing the bidding of their polluter donor friends rather than working on the people of their state,'' said Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans for Change in a media call on Thursday. The group says Republican AGs collectively received $4.7 million from opponents of the Clean Power Plan. "If you ask me, that's pretty damning."

Update June 8: The information provided by Americans United for Change did not list which companies they consider opponents of the Clean Power Plan. A 2015 blog by the National Resources Defense Council indicated that some of the constructive comments to the Environmental Protection Agency about the rule were from power companies such as the parent of Florida Power & Light, NextEra Energy which showed they are "constructively engaged regarding the EPA's Clean Power Plan proposal."

"NextEra "supports the Clean Power Plan as a reasonable and balanced approach to reducing CO2 emissions from the electric generating sector that is consistent with the CAA and EPA's implementing regulations,'' the blog quotes NextEra as saying.

NextEra, which as one of the nation's largest wind and solar energy providers, sees business opportunities in the Clean Power Plan and  actually filed a motion to intervene in the case in support of the EPA rule.  "NextEra has and will continue to develop significant renewable power generation facilities that will be directly impacted by the outcome of the Final Rule,'' the NextERa motion stated.

"NextEra is deeply concerned about the impact that a negative ruling on the EPA Clean Power Plan could have on the company....If petitioners were to prevail in the case the benefits to NextEra likely to follow from the Clean Power Plan will be reduced or eliminated." 

Does that mean NextEra does not support Bondi's attempt to block the rule? The Herald/Times asked NextEra spokesman Rob Gould: Is NextEra opposed to Bondi's opposition to the Clean Power Plan and the timeline for compliance with the emission reductions?

His answer: "We really have nothing to offer."

Some of the organizations NextEra and FPL are large contributors to have been actively working to defeat the Clean Power Plan. In Jan. 2016, the U.S. Chamber's Litigation Center joined other business groups and filed a lawsuit similar to the one filed by the states to stay the Clean Power Plan. The lawsuit came six months after FPL President Eric Silagy was elected a member of the U.S Chamber Board of Directors

Gould said that the company is committed to expanding renewable energy options. "As the largest generator of wind and solar power in the world, NextEra Energy has long supported efforts to encourage investment in affordable clean energy."

Some of the company's investments, however, have gone to people and organizations who don't agree that the Clean Power Plan is a means to the clean energy goal.

In 2014, FPL was a contributor to Bondi's political committee, Justice for All, giving her $50,000 from Florida Power & Light.

Continue reading "Group highlights financial ties between Pam Bondi and opponents of the Clean Power Plan" »

June 01, 2016

Environmental groups return to court over Legislature's diverting Amendment 1 money

EvergladesFour environmental groups on Wednesday asked a court to accelerate its ruling in a lawsuit accusing the Florida Legislature of violating the state Constitution and misdirecting Amendment 1 environmental funds into salaries and inappropriate operating expenses.

The groups, the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, and the Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida, are asking a court to transfer$299 million  general revenue money into those programs and restore the money in the Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

The fund was created by voters in 2014, after the Legislature brought the state's 50-year-old land buying program to a halt during the Great Recession.The Land and Water Conservation Amendment required that one third of all proceeds from real estate transaction taxes be set aside for the environment and voters approved it by 75 percent of the vote. 

In 2015, the first year the law was in effect, proceeds totaled $750 million. But instead of putting all the money into new environmental programs, lawmakers reasoned that they could divert $216 million into appropriated for salaries and operating expenses for existing environmental programs and $26 million for agriculture pollution control projects on private land.

The motion for summary judgment argues that since there is no dispute about what lawmakers have done, the Leon County Circuit Court should declare the Legislature in violation of the constitution and order the money replaced. 

"It's a wound that won't heal because it was such a breach of faith with Florida voters,'' said David Guest, attorney for the environmental groups. "The governor endorsed the defiance of the amendment and the Legislature did too."

The groups first filed the lawsuit against Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Cristafulli in July 2015. The Legislature, joined by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, asked that the case be dismissed and argued that the court has no authority over how the Legislature spends state money. 

But the court refused to dismiss the case and, the plaintiffs argue, that with no facts in dispute, the judge should declare that money intended for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund may not be used for expenses outside the intended scope of the amendment. 

"Nowhere does the Amendment contemplate spending money for restoration or improvement of private lands, or appropriations for projects on private lands that have a general environmental benefit,'' the groups wrote in the motion. "If that were true, funds from the Amendment could be used to modernize the wastewater treatment systems of pulp mills."

Instead, the purpose of Amendment 1 is "to dedicate funds to 'acquire and restore conservation and recreation lands,''' they argue. 

"Instead of appropriating money for those purposes, the Legislature appropriated Amendment One funds as if the terms 'management' and 'restoration of natural system' in the text of the Amendment encompassed the salaries and operating expenses of state agencies with a nexus to conservation or improvement of the environment,'' the motion states.

The result, they say, is that the Legislature's interpretation of Amendment 1 gives it "no effect other than preventing expenditures by environmental agencies to be reduced below one-fifth of the current funding level."

The Legislature is expected to respond with its own brief in opposition. 


May 20, 2016

'Hands Across the Sand' event offers window into election year politics of 'fracking'

HandsAcrossSandsRep. Kathleen Peters, the former Republican mayor of the tiny seaside town of South Pasadena in Pinellas County, has found what it's like to be hit by the anti-fracking wave.

Peters is seeking a third term is a Republican and faces Democrat Jennifer Webb, an administrator at the University of South Florida. She plans to attend the annual Hands Across the Sands event tomorrow in which state and local leaders declare their abiding opposition to oil drilling off Florida's coasts.

But a press release Friday from an organization called the Superior Small Lodging Association, a non-profit representing individually-owned inns, bed & breakfasts, cottages and condos, is raising questions about Peters' opposition to oil drilling after she joined with all but seven of her GOP colleagues and voted for a bill last session that would have authorized the controversial drilling technique known as fracking and prevented local governments from regulating it.

The bill also included a temporary moratorium and would have authorized the activity only after it came before the Florida Legislature for another affirmative vote.

"Small business owners on the beach are questioning her record when it comes to fighting oil drilling and protecting local beaches given her support for fracking,'' writes the organization in its press release.

Mary Wilkerson, owner of Gulfside Resorts in Indian Rocks Beach, called out Peters:  "Basically, Rep. Kathleen Peters voted for a law that pretty much takes away our local control over fracking from cities and counties all over Florida.'' 

June Mohns of Island Paradise Cottages of Madeira Beach speculated that Peters may have voted for HB 191 because she "has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from dirty fossil fuel industry investors.”

Peters says this is all wrong. "I have been against offshore oil drilling since before I was an elected official,'' she said Friday.

She said she supported the fracking bill (which failed to pass in the Senate) and "would support it today because without it we have no regulations and that bill put in place a moratorium and said you can't lift it unless the Legislature allows it. I don't believe the Legislature will ever allow fracking in Florida."

"This is all political,'' Peters said. "I expect we'll be hearing a lot about fracking in this campaign."

Would she support a bill that includes an outright ban on fracking in Florida -- similar to those proposed last session but which got no hearing?

"If a total ban would come up I'd probably support it,'' Peters said. But she prefers the approach taken by the bill's House author, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, to require a study first to see what impact fracking might have on Florida's fragile water table. 

Photo: Facing Old Tampa Bay, on the south side of the Gandy Bridge, about 30 people formed a human chain, holding hands for 15 minutes to demonstrate their objection to offshore drilling and to call for a renewable energy. Times file (2012)