December 11, 2018

3,400+ Floridians ask DeSantis to address climate change as governor

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By Alex Harris, Miami Herald Staff

Despite the fact that Florida is the most vulnerable state in the nation to climate change, Governor-elect Ron DeSantis has shied away from discussing the issue or his plans to address it.

On Tuesday morning, environmental groups delivered DeSantis a petition with more than 3,400 signatures asking him to acknowledge the threat and become “the Governor who saved our state.”

“This is a nonpartisan issue that affects all Floridians. The Governor-elect has no choice but to make climate action a top priority. We are running out of time,” Florida Conservation Voters Executive Director Aliki Moncrief said in a statement.

DeSantis did not specifically detail his potential plans for climate action, but said in a statement:
 
“The Governor-elect has always made clear he will take on the issues facing our state head-on. That includes fighting for clean water, protecting Florida’s coastlines and conserving our natural environment.”

In previous press statements, the Governor-elect has said he is unclear on the cause of climate change (the majority of scientists say it’s from fossil fuels burned by humans), although he sees the effects and wants to address them.

“The sea rise may be because of human activity and the changing climate, maybe it is not, I do not know,” he told Miami Herald news partner CBS4. “What I do know is I see the sea rising. I see the increase in flooding in South Florida. I think you would be a fool to not consider that is an issue we need to address.”

In the letter, co-signed by Miami’s CLEO Institute, Environment Florida and the Sierra Club, petitioners asked DeSantis to help Florida transition to renewable energy, protect the state’s waterways, charge polluters and institute a “Florida Future Fund” to pay for resilient infrastructure.

November 28, 2018

Democrats and Republicans want to tax pollution — and give the money back to you

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@alextdaugherty

President Donald Trump said “I don’t see” the dangers of climate change that were included in a report released by his own administration. Voters in Democratic-controlled Washington state rejected a tax on carbon at the polls earlier this month. And a host of climate-minded Republicans, including Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelolost reelection and won’t be returning to Congress next year.

But a group of lawmakers on both sides see a politically palatable way to tax pollution: give the money collected from polluters back to every American in the form of a dividend.

That’s the big idea behind the latest piece of climate change legislation proposed by Florida Democrats Ted Deutch and Charlie Crist and Florida Republican Francis Rooney. The three House members were part of a five-member group that unveiled the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act on Wednesday, a sweeping bill that would tax carbon emissions and return the money raised by the tax to everyone.

“The goal was to craft a climate proposal that will be a huge leap forward in the way America responds to climate change,” Deutch said. “In South Florida, climate change is not a political issue. Our hope is with the introduction of the legislation that Congress shows that it can understand that as well.”

The carbon tax introduced Wednesday is unlikely to become law this Congress, because all bills that aren’t passed and signed by the president in the next month will expire. But the group of lawmakers see the bill’s introduction as a starting point for climate change discussions in the coming Congress, where Democrats will control the House while Republicans control the Senate and the White House.

More here.

July 26, 2018

Can lowering Lake O stop toxic algae flows? The Trump administration wants to find out

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Brian Mast crashed the party.

The first-term Republican congressman, who represents a Treasure Coast district decimated by toxic blue-green algae, wasn’t scheduled to speak at the South Florida Ecosystem Restoration Task Force’s first meeting since Donald Trump became president.

But as Mast emerged in the back of the auditorium, assistant Secretary of the Interior Susan Combs stopped a scheduled question-and-answer session with Army Corps officials to let the congressman question some of the officials in attendance.

His most pressing concern? Getting government officials to lower Lake Okeechobee water levels in the dry season so the lake has more capacity during the wetter summer months, decreasing the chances of algae-ridden water ending up in canals and rivers on Florida’s east and west coasts.

“This is the issue that’s at the crux of my community, the fact that water is being held on Lake Okeechobee, not just as it relates to risk management but as it relates to the benefit of a number of other entities to the detriment of an epicenter of population,” Mast said. “I think this issue needs to be dealt with in the short term as we wait for everything in this integrated delivery schedule to come to fruition. This is an emergency situation in an epicenter of human population.”

South Florida Water Management District Director Ernie Marks and Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works R.D. James were unable to estimate a minimum water level for Lake Okeechobee during the dry season.

“I don’t have an exact number for you,” Marks said. “I can tell you that there are several entities that rely on that water. We do focus on making sure that the tribes, the lower east coast get the water that they need to support the populations in those areas.”

“Which is to the detriment of communities that don’t need the water when it comes to the time of the wet season, which we’re in right now,” Mast replied.

The exchange between Mast and Marks highlights the tension between competing interests that have different immediate needs from Florida’s largest lake. Residents along the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers are on the verge of an economic recession due to the algae flows, according to Sanibel mayor Kevin Ruane.

“I’ve been here for 15 years, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen this condition,” Ruane said. “We’re like Goldilocks: we need water during the dry season but we don’t water during the wet season. Right now, we’re have a situation where this is having a compound effect on the economy.”

Read more here.

July 19, 2018

Republicans scoff at a carbon tax as Curbelo unveils his own climate-change plan

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@alextdaugherty

Carlos Curbelo’s latest effort to shift the climate change debate within the Republican Party has a long way to go.

As the Miami Republican prepares to officially unveil a sweeping carbon tax bill on Monday that would provide $700 billion for infrastructure by taxing coal and natural gas emissions, House Republicans overwhelmingly voted for a resolution on Thursday expressing that a potential tax on carbon emissions would be detrimental to the U.S. economy.

Only six of 236 Republicans voted against the resolution, including Curbelo and retiring Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Curbelo argued that the resolution’s language was correct in that a carbon tax on its own would hurt the economy, but that a carbon tax paired with other ideas would help it.

“When you ask this question in a vacuum, is any tax detrimental to economic growth? It’s usually going to be yes,” Curbelo said. “But when you put it in context and you show how [a carbon tax] can be a component of a broader policy that is focused on winning the future, then it makes a whole lot more sense.”

Curbelo’s massive bill would repeal the federal gas tax and instead tax fossil fuels at the source. In exchange, the bill would enact a moratorium on certain environmental regulations if lower carbon emissions are met.

“Next week, you’ll see major legislation authored by a Republican and cosponsored by other Republicans to kind of show a good solution that... takes into account the cost of carbon emissions,” Curbelo said. “We wanted to make it as fair as possible and that’s why we repeal the gas tax. This is not about punishing consumers or punishing producers, it’s about making sure that we can hand off a clean, healthy planet to future generations while being sensitive to economic realities.”

But the political reality is that his bill is likely going nowhere in a Republican-controlled Congress with Donald Trump in the White House. Curbelo acknowledged that the bill, which he has been working on since last year, is about bringing different sides of the debate together and changing the conversation on climate change.

Curbelo’s district, which stretches from West Dade to Key West, includes low-lying territory that makes it one of the most vulnerable in the country when it comes to the effects of climate change. It’s also the most vulnerable for Republicans politically, at least on paper: Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in the district by more than 16 points in 2016, though Curbelo won reelection over former Democratic congressman Joe Garcia by over 11 points last cycle.

Curbelo’s likely Democratic opponent in November, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, accused him of political opportunism, noting that he voted in favor of the anti-carbon tax resolution in 2016 along with every other Republican in Congress.

“Just two years ago, Congressman Curbelo opposed a carbon tax and voted with his party to declare that it would supposedly harm American families,” Mucarsel-Powell said in a statement. “But now that he’s running against someone who has actively worked to fight climate change in our community, he wants us to believe he changed his mind.”

Read more here.

February 28, 2018

Environmental group downgrades Carlos Curbelo’s climate change record

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@alextdaugherty

Carlos Curbelo’s climate-change record took a step down in 2017 in the eyes of one influential environmental group, as the Miami Republican gears up for a reelection bid in a Miami-to-Key West district that is still recovering from Hurricane Irma and dealing with the effects of sea level rise.

The League of Conservation Voters released its 2017 scorecard on Tuesday, and Curbelo, who had the best score among House Republicans currently in Congress on the 2016 scorecard, now ranks tied for 13th among House Republicans. Curbelo had a 53 percent rating for his votes during 2016, and now has a 23 percent rating for his votes last year.

“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Curbelo said when asked about his rating. “I don’t follow NRA ratings, chamber ratings, League of Conservation Voters ratings. I just try to do the right thing on every vote and I usually end up finding out about my scores later come campaign season.”

Part of Curbelo’s drop can be attributed to Hurricane Irma, as he missed a series of votes while dealing with the hurricane in September. The eight missed votes due to the hurricane count against him on the LCV’s scorecard.

But even if he received a 100 percent score on his missed votes Curbelo would still have a 49 percent rating, which is lower than his 2016 mark. The downgrade comes after a year in which Curbelo expressed pro-environment positions, like opposing President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, while also voting for bills like the Republican tax plan that included a measure allowing oil exploration in a portion of Alaska’s North Slope.

Curbelo’s office said he would have voted for the LCV-favored position on six of the nine votes he missed in 2017, meaning his rating would have been 40 percent instead of 23 percent.

The LCV said it would like to see more legislative work from Curbelo’s Climate Solutions Caucus, a group founded by Curbelo and Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, that is comprised of lawmakers from both parties who are concerned about the impacts of climate change.

“Environmental votes weren’t always as partisan as they’ve become today,” LCV press secretary Alyssa Roberts said. “We would love to see higher scores from Republicans, and appreciate the Climate Solutions Caucus as a step to build bipartisan support, but the urgency of the climate crisis requires action, not just talk.”

Curbelo said the LCV is a partisan organization whose primary concern is getting Democrats to Washington, and that scorecards like theirs are “all subjective... designed to yield a certain score.”

Read more here.

November 15, 2017

Martin County agrees to pay $12 million for shielding and destroying public records

Everglades@MaryEllenKlas

Circumventing Florida's public records law, and destroying public documents, has cost Martin County commissioners more than $12 million -- and the toll keeps rising. 

The commission on Tuesday agreed to a $12 million payout to Lake Point, a rock quarry company that has plans to become a water company, sued the county for breach of contract and for violating the state's Sunshine Law.

The agreement will put an end to a four-year legal dispute but not the end of the county's woes. A grand jury is investigating allegations that at least one county commissioner destroyed records relating to the case, which could draw criminal penalties. 

The county also agreed to buy 300 acres of land from Lake Point, refund environmental surcharge and impact fees, and grant a permit for an onsite cement plan. It also agreed to issue an apology letter.

In the letter, released on Tuesday, the commissioners apologized to Lake Point, "its principals and its employees for the harsh words and inappropriate deed of certain commissioners that unnecessarily tarnished the reputation of Lake Point." It also admitted that it needed "to improve its public records practice" particularly as it related to using private emails for public purposes.  Download 17-11-13 Settlement Agreement (All pages) (1)

"We now know that the use of private e-mail accounts by certain County commissioners had become too commonplace, resulting in a lack of the transparency and accountability that the public rightly expects from its government, and that is required by law,'' the letter states. "We have addressed these public records problems through new policy and practices, by which we hope to restore the public’s trust in how Martin County transacts its public affairs."

It's a dramatic admission for a county that spent two years denying the existence of public records, until a court ordered them released, and it is the second settlement agreed to by the commission this year.

A a court-appointed arbitrator in February concluded the county “engaged in a pattern of violating the public records act” in an attempt to shield that they were using private email accounts to communicate with former Martin County Commissioner and environmental advocate Maggy Hurchalla. The court found that “certain commissioners failed to take public records requests seriously.”

The county agreed to pay more than $371,800 in attorneys’ fees at the time, and to establish a new policy for how to handle public business on private email accounts.

The Lake Point venture began as a public-private partnership that would allow Lake Point’s owners to operate a for-profit rockpit to mine and sell aggregate — a mixture of minerals —for construction projects. In exchange, Lake Point would donate the 2,200-acre property to the district, which would use it to divert water from Lake Okeechobee or the C-44 Canal to avoid discharges into the St. Lucie Estuary.

The water on the land, which former owners had used to grow sugarcane, would be treated and then sent south into Florida Bay. Lake Point argued the agreement with the district gave it the right to transport and supply water; the company wanted to sell water to Palm Beach County. Martin County countered that Lake Point was not allowed to conduct a revenue-generating public water-supply project on the property.

The county canceled the contract in late 2012, after Hurchalla urged county commissioners to reject it, claiming it could destroy as much as 60 acres of wetlands. Lake Point countered that Hurchalla’s claims were false, and sought copies of private emails between commissioners and Hurchalla.

Emails discovered in the case revealed that more than one commissioner used personal email accounts to conduct public business, and Lake Point sued. 

In March 2016, Hurchalla produced emails that the county had denied existed for two years. They showed that she had been engaged in discussions with former Commissioner Anne Scott and Commissioner Ed Fielding about canceling the contract and appeared to coach Scott to “limit the discussion” and cancel the contract. 

The court-appointed arbitrator concluded that County Commissioner Sarah Heard scrubbed information and altered public records, after she claimed her private Yahoo! account was hacked. Now, a grand jury is reviewing those developments. 

The county commission voted 4-1 to approve the settlement with only Heard voting no. 

County Commissioner Ed Ciampi called it "a dark day in Martin County."

Commission Chair Doug Smith called the need for the settlement "reckless,'' according to TC Palm. "We are borrowing money to dig our way out of a hole," he said, adding that the county could have built two fire stations with the money spent on the settlement.

Heard, however, maintained she had done nothing wrong.

"This is the most alarming proposal I've ever seen put before any board,'' she said, according to TC Palm. "We didn't do anything wrong. This is an unveiled assault on opposition, on criticism. It's meant to vanquish opposition and critics, to muzzle the public and critical public officials."

Related: Martin County slapped with big public records fine

 

 

October 19, 2017

Court gives boost to legal fight against new state rule that would allow more toxins in water

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After a year of legal hurdles, the city of Miami and Seminole Tribe of Florida can now move forward with a lawsuit challenging a state rule that would allow higher concentrations of toxic chemicals, including carcinogens, to be discharged into Florida’s rivers and streams.

The Third District Court of Appeals on Wednesday reversed a lower court ruling and Miami said Thursday it will now continue to pursue its lawsuit against the Department of Environmental Protection's Human Health Toxics Criteria Rule.

The rule increases the acceptable levels of more than two dozen known carcinogens and decreases levels for 13 currently regulated chemicals. It was approved on a 3-2 vote by the Environmental Regulation Commission in July 2016, when the commission had only five of its seven members. Story here. 

Photo: Pembroke Pines was a semifinalist in a national tap water competition in 2011. Here at the Pembroke Pines water treatment facility Michael Ponce drinks some of the prized water on June 15, 2011 at one of the water treatment units. A new state rule would allow more toxins in water sources. JOE RIMKUS JR. Miami Herald File

September 06, 2017

Army Corps says Lake Okeechobee is in 'great shape' for Hurricane Irma's arrival

Everglades
Federal officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that if projected rainfall estimates remain at between eight to 10 inches over Lake Okeechobee and Irma douses the lake as a category 3 hurricane, the vulnerable Herbert Hoover dike will be at "low risk" for flooding, and the lake is in "great shape" for the storm's arrival.

The corps started discharging water into estuaries east and west of Lake Okeechobee on Tuesday and will continue through Friday, said Laureen Borochaner, chief of engineering for the U.S. Army Corps during a conference call with reporters Wednesday. Preparations also include drawing down canals to levels lower than normal pre-storm readiness and discharging as much water as possible to tide through all coastal structures.

She said the combination of wind and water could lead to some flooding in Clewiston, at the site of one of the construction projects there but the corps has pre-positioned staff to monitor conditions after the storm passes.

"The overall amount of Lake Okeechobee is a low risk condition," Borochaner said, adding that because the lake is at 13.5 feet, one foot lower than it was last year and within the 12.5 to 15.5 foot range. "We will continue to monitor storm forecasts."  

Borochaner said that if the storm arrives as a category 4 or 5, the conditions could become more threatening to the lake. 

"It depends on how much precipitation falls in and around the lake,'' said John Campbell, corps spokesperson. 

 

Florida's utilities are more prepared for Irma than Wilma. Here's why

FPL linemanThe memories of the stifled recovery from Florida’s 2004-05 spate of hurricanes still haunt: gas stations with fuel but no power to pump it, high rises with people but no working elevators and neighborhoods that scrambled to recover for weeks without electricity.

Florida’s utility companies say they have learned from the eight hurricanes more than a decade ago and if Irma makes landfall, recovery will be different.

High rises are now required to have at least one elevator operate on generator power. Gas stations and convenience stores, which fended off legislation that would have required them to buy generators, must now have access to a back-up power supply if they have fuel but no electricity.

And Florida’s utility companies, which have employed new technology and invested billions in hardening since Wilma slammed South Florida in 2005, say they are more prepared than ever for a monster storm.

“We learn from every storm and we take these lessons learned to see how we can make improvements because the key is getting the lights back on,” said Bill Orlove, FPL spokesperson. More here. 

July 31, 2017

South Florida water managers select Ernie Marks as their third director in three years

Ernie marksvia @JenStaletovich

The South Florida Water Management District chose its deputy director as the agency’s new chief, replacing a combative insider close to the governor with a career environmental regulator who has spent more than a decade working on Everglades restoration.

Ernie Marks, who joined the district in March 2016, becomes the third director in three years.

Marks served as the South Florida regional director for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission for two years and before that oversaw ecosystem projects for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for a decade. He has a degree in environmental economics and natural resource management from the University of Rhode Island.

Marks was the only person nominated for the position during the board’s 31-minute meeting, largely spent praising the work of outgoing director, Pete Antonacci, the former general counsel for Gov. Rick Scott who earlier this month was named new chief of Enterprise Florida.

“Pete was the right guy at the right time,” said board chairman Dan O’Keefe. “My advice to Enterprise Florida: Brace yourselves and fasten your seat belts.”

During his two years at the helm, Antonacci repeatedly took on federal regulators and environmental groups. He accused the Everglades Foundation of cooking numbers on a study that looked at the need for a southern reservoir and threatened to end a longstanding partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to manage the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, incurring the wrath of longtime Everglades advocate Nathaniel Reed. Earlier this month, he ordered district scientists not to participate in the National Academies of Sciences’ annual review of Everglades Restoration in West Palm Beach this week. More here.