Saturday, March 22, 2014
The Equalizer/Frances Cerra Whittelsey: Army Corps Work on Lake O Dike Won't Stop Lake Dump or Help Everglades Despite High Price Tag
The Equalizer/Frances Cerra Whittelsey: Army Corps Work on Lake O Dike Won't Stop Lake Dump or Help Everglades Despite High Price Tag
All around me as I look south, the flat land of the Everglades reaches to the horizon, interrupted only occasionally by small stands of palm trees. None of the distinctive native sawgrass grows here. In fact, the vista is not at all what visitors to Everglades National Park see. Instead, the black, peat-like soil is planted in sugar cane as far as I can see.
Behind me, as I turn around, is an expanse of placid blue water that reflects the sky. It is all water to the northern horizon. This is Lake Okeechobee.
I am standing on the flat top of the mound of sand and gravel, not concrete, that is the fragile Herbert Hoover Dike, a 143-mile long structure that holds in the mammoth lake. Once-upon-a time, it was considered the brilliant solution to Florida’s sometimes deadly flooding problems. Today, it’s lack of an outlet to the south deprives the remaining area of natural Everglades of the water it needs, while its fragility requires the repeated dumping of billions of gallons of polluted water, with disastrous results, into the delicate Indian River and Caloosahatchie estuaries to the east and west.
On this bright early Spring day, I’m out on an all-day tour of some of the Army Corps of Engineer’s latest work on the Dike, at the moment in the town of Moore Haven. With me are clean water activist Becky Bruner; Marty Baum, the Indian River Keeper; and my husband, Harry, a Sierra Club Long Island executive committee member and photographer for the day. Our guide is John Campbell who has come from the Corps office in Jacksonville.
As they are in New Orleans and so many other places, the Corps is responsible for managing the risks of flooding and dam safety. Here, the Corps has calculated the risk as one-in-two that a very heavy rain, from a hurricane or otherwise, will cause the dike to burst, if the water level rises to 18’. This calamity would inundate the small, low-income communities built just below the dike and spread water through much of South Florida.
Our tour showed contractors under Corps supervision working on replacing the first of 32 nearly 100-year old culverts that the engineers consider especially vulnerable points of failure. The new concrete structures are expected to last 100 years. In 2012, after six years of toil, the Corps finished building 21 miles of a wall to prevent water from seeping through the dike. But the $10 million/mile project stopped 122 miles short of stabilizing the whole dike.
So here’s the problem: hundreds of millions of tax dollars of work later, the risk of dike failure is still high, and nothing the Corps is doing lessens at all the certainty that dirty water will once again be dumped into the estuaries when rain raises the water level high enough.
What the culvert work does guarantee, however, is that the sugar cane fields can continue to be drained when it rains hard—sending water back into the lake, which is already filling up very rapidly from the very same rain. And that is the very condition that leads to the dumping of Lake water east and west.
Should sugar can fields be allowed to flood and sustain damage? Should they be allowed to pump water back in when lake water is ruining some of the most important natural areas in the state of Florida, and in fact, the whole continent? Who is setting the priorities, and how are they doing that?
There is much more to this story, and I will pick it up again soon.
Friday, February 7, 2014
Indian River Lagoon Dodges Latest Bullet After Protest at St. Lucie Locks; Lake Dump Set for Caloosahatiche Estuary
Nurse Pamela Joy, 57, had a question, in fact a series of questions all about the same issue: “Why is it OK for them (the Army Corps of Engineers) to flood us and destroy the Indian River? Why is one industry, sugar, more important than all the species (that live in the river)?”
She pointed to the shirt she was wearing, a blue tee shirt imprinted with the image of a skeletal fish. “This is what we have in our lagoon. We want healthy fish. This is our sad, mourning shirt.”
It was before-breakfast early on a foggy Feb. 5, and I was out to witness protestors objecting to the announcement that the Corps might start discharging as much as 756.2 million gallons of polluted water into the Indian River estuary this very day. About 25 demonstrators were gathered next to the St. Lucie Locks to show that they are fed up with a system that protects sugar plantations while causing an environmental catastrophe in the Indian River Lagoon.
As it turned out, the Corps. announced that no discharge would go to the Indian River right now, but starting tomorrow, Saturday, a dump of 1,000 cubic feet of water per second will flood the Caloosahatchie Estuary in western Florida.
Massive discharges of toxic, polluted water went into both estuaries last summer and continued into October. Now, unusually heavy winter rains have once again filled Lake Okeechobee to levels that the Corps said could be dangerous and cause a breach of the dike. If the discharge occurred while they were at the locks, the protestors would see the dirty water passing through.
Local experts, including Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Institute, disagreed vehemently with the Corps assessment of the situation. “There’s no danger of a breach,” said Perry, according to the The Stuart News. He noted that it might rain some more, but then again, might not. Other experts said the Corps could release water into storm water treatment and conservation areas south of the Lake, and that they were following old, outdated protocols.
A spokesperson for the Army Corps told The Stuart News that the Corps is simply following federal law, which requires them to give priority to the sugar plantations, which were experiencing flooding from the recent rain. Water drained from the plantations was filling those storm water and conservation areas, and there was even a possibility, she said, that they would pump some of that polluted water back into the lake.
So why is this happening and will continue to happen? The sad answer to Pamela Joy’s question is this: Because the law is written that way. And the laws have been written to suit Big Sugar.##
Sunday, January 26, 2014
They Are Not Going Away! Florida Activists Vow to Hold Politicians Accountable For Pollution of Indian River Lagoon
I attended a fundraiser last night in Stuart, Florida, to support efforts to stop the pollution of the Indian River Lagoon. I’ve been visiting this area off and on for the past 10 years or so, drawn by the twisting mangroves and their “walking” roots, the magnificent birds, the constantly changing colors of sky and their reflections on the water.
I supported the fund-raiser because I can see with my own eyes the damage that is occurring. Before the 2004 hurricanes, I would see multitudes of birds--ibises, herons, egrets, storks, sanderlings, and squadrons of pelicans flying in formation. Pelicans were also common on the beach, looking solemnly down their long fishing beaks at people surf-casting.
I have no data but only my own observation that after the hurricanes, the number of birds of all kinds diminished sharply.
And then, last summer, to prevent a disastrous break of the dike holding in Lake Okeechobee, the Army Corps of Engineers released billions of gallons of horribly polluted fresh water into the Lagoon. The Lagoon is actually a salt-freshwater estuary, a very special place that when healthy supports 700 species of fish and, in general, more diversity of life than any other estuary in North America.
“Massive biological kills” resulted, according to the Indian RiverKeeper, and a level of toxicity in the water so high that people were warned not to even touch it.
A similar dump of polluted lake water occurred in 2001, but nothing was done to prevent a repeat, despite numerous studies of the situation and recommendations to fix it. And another dump of polluted lake water will occur again the next time there is heavy rain or, more catastrophically, a hurricane that hits the Lake area.
I met the keeper of the Indian River last night, Marty Baum. Yes, there is one, an energetic and forceful man who accepts living on a $24,000/year salary because of his love of the Lagoon.
He is part of a dedicated group of River Keepers joined in the Waterkeeper Alliance who stand guard over our precious rivers, often frustrated and helpless in the face of politicians, developers and wealthy business owners who can’t see that harming the rivers is harming all of us.
But last night, the activists gathered to raise money for the River Keeper shouted their intentions: They are not going away!
They vowed to hold politicians running for office this year to a litmus test:
Will they support enforcement of a Florida law that says polluters must pay for their pollution?
That concept was actually voted into law by Florida’s residents in the 1990’s, but a court ruled that the language contained no mechanism for enforcement; Florida’s legislature would have to create that.
Did the legislature act? No, not in this state where most politicians genuflect before wealthy sugar barons and developers.
The activists also vowed to campaign against a proposed new state law that would prevent municipalities like Stuart from making any rules about the environment.
Stuart is one of the few Florida municipalities that has worked hard to retain the natural beauty of this state by limiting the height of residential buildings to four stories, for example. No towering condominium buildings here.
Now the city is being sued by the likes of King Ranch, which raises sugar can in the Everglades and not cattle. It is another of Florida’s sugar cane companies whose websites tout their environmental consciousness. No mention of the lawsuit there.
To overcome these powerful interests will take nothing less than the passion I saw last night, and thousands more people willing to take a stand.
As for me, no, I am not going away!
Thursday, December 12, 2013
Big Sugar Lobbying, Campaign Contributions Stymie Efforts to Restore the Everglades, Clean Indian River Lagoon
Note: This is the second in a series of posts on the pollution of The Everglades and the delicate estuaries to the east and west of Lake Okeechobee.
Look no further than Big Sugar to understand why the Everglades and the estuary known as the Indian River Lagoon are still a long way from being cleaned up.
Big Sugar has been getting its way for decades not only in Florida but in Washington D.C. where the version of the Farm Bill passed by House Republicans, but still not enacted into law, cuts $40 billion from Food Stamps while enshrining subsidies for the sugar industry permanently.
Sugar is the only agricultural commodity that gets both price supports and controls on competing imports. Up to now, this corporate welfare had to be renewed by Congress every few years, providing at least a periodic chance to discuss this give-away of tax dollars. The Republican provision would end that.
Thanks to these subsidies, the sugar we love to eat costs Americans twice to three times as much as people in other countries. And its high price here has prompted candy manufacturers to move out of the U.S., taking manufacturing jobs with them.
In addition to these insults to taxpayers and consumers, sugar growers in Florida are literally standing in the way of efforts to restore the Everglades and stop the periodic dumping of dirty water from Lake Okeechobee into estuaries east and west.
That’s because Florida’s sugarcane industry sits on the land south of the Lake that used to be part of the delicate system that sustains the Everglades. When rain used to fill the lake to overflowing, the excess water would slowly seep out to the south, nourishing the unique eco-system below.
Instead, these days the Army Corps of Engineers regulates the flow of water south out of the lake to suit the needs of the cane growers, regardless of the impact on the estuaries. Heavy rain and the cane doesn't need water while the lake gets dangerously full? The Corps just opens the canal gates to the east and west. Habituated to this special treatment and their profits, the owners do everything they can to make sure they stay right where they are and pay only a tiny portion of the cost of their pollution.
The sugar industry, I’ve learned, ranks with oil, the gun lobby and arms merchants among the top spenders nationally on lobbying and political contributions. Big Sugar spent $8 million lobbying Congress in 2012 alone, according to PublicCampaign, a non-profit dedicated to reducing the influence of special interest money in politics.
In Florida, only developers and the citrus industry (a big portion of which is owned by U.S. Sugar) exert as much influence, according to campaign finance records. In the 2012 state election cycle, the sugar industry spent $881,000 on contributions, almost all to Republicans.
Instant Access and Action
What they get for their money is instant access and instant action. One of the clearest examples of this involved a deal early in 2013 that gave Florida Crystals, the sugar behemoth owned by the Fanjul brothers—Cubans expelled by Fidel Castro—a lease on nearly 9,000 acres of land where they can grow cane and pollute the Everglades for the next 30 years, an unprecedented extension.
All it took was one phone call from Florida Crystals to a key Florida legislator, and the deal was done, according to The Palm Beach Post.
As you might expect, environmental advocates objected to the deal when the terms first surfaced. The deal called for Florida Crystals and another sugar company, Gladeview Holdings, to give 4,500 acres to the Southwest Florida Water Management District in return for the 30-year leases on 9,000 acres from the water district. The district needed the 4,500 acres to expand the water-cleaning capacity at a storm water treatment area just west of Wellington, Florida, according to Gabe Margasak, a spokesperson for the district.
The Florida Wildlife Federation filed an administrative complaint against Governor Rick Scott and his cabinet, who, in a peculiarity of Florida law, vote on such leases and had approved the 30-year deal. But on April 15, four days after the filing of the complaint, Rep. Matt Caldwell, a Republican from Fort Myers, added an amendment to a bill that guaranteed the validity of the leases. It passed, enshrining cane production on the land for the next three decades.
The top lobbyist for Florida Crystals told the Palm Beach Post that he had indeed phoned Caldwell and asked for the amendment.
Polluters Must Pay? No Way
A special amendment to the Florida Constitution passed 17 years ago by 68% of the voters, stipulated that polluters of The Everglades must pay 100% of the costs of clean-up. But that has been no problem for Big Sugar, as the state legislature has simply ignored the mandate.
But why take the chance that the Constitution might actually be implemented? So last May, Governor Rick Scott signed a law that says that the $25/acre tax being paid by sugar plantations “totally complies with the constitution, and therefore they (the sugar companies) will not be obligated to do anything different,” according to Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Institute.
Yet the $25/acre tax covers only 25% of the clean-up costs.
This means that “the Legislature has shifted billions of dollars of Big Sugar pollution cleanup costs onto the taxpayers of south Florida," according to Friends of the Everglades. In the current climate of budget-cutting and no new taxes, this shift of the cost burden to taxpayers will certainly delay the extensive work needed to restore the Everglades and the estuaries.
Green-Washing by Florida Crystals
When corporations whose essential activities harm the environment do things to make their business seem environmentally friendly, environmentalists call that “green-washing.” A visit to Florida Crystals website shows that the corporation tries hard to portray its business as very, very green.
The company’s “eco-vision,” says its website, has resulted in efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, by, for example, making electricity from the left-over sugar cane stalks and implementing emerging technologies to clean and conserve water.
But the fundamental problem with the sugar plantations is that, as Jonathan Ullman of the Sierra Club, Florida, puts it, they’re “in the wrong place.”
“Because the Everglades is extremely low phosphorus, you are going to have problems when you apply (even small amounts) of fertilizer,” he said.
“Phosphorus pollution is a problem nation-wide, but it is extremely problematic in the Everglades. If the amount goes over 10 parts per billion, cattails grow and crowd out the sawgrass.,” he continued. Sawgrass marshes dominated in the Everglades until they were drained to allow sugar cane cultivation.
Florida Crystals, of course, makes no mention of the phosphorus problem on its website, instead proclaiming that “our proud heritage of family farming has taught us the importance of being good stewards of the land…We grow our sugar and rice in harmony with the environment to preserve and enhance the natural resources of our farms and surrounding ecosystems. “
The Fanjul Brothers
The Fanjul family, which owns Florida Crystals and other sugar companies, is anything but the typical agriculture family.
The Fanjuls own 155,000 acres in Palm Beach County, about 12% of all the land. That makes them the 62nd largest landowner in the U..S. Alfy Fanjul and his brother Pepe each own 12,000 square foot homes in Palm Beach. Their actions in the Dominican Republic, where they are the largest landowners and private employer, even surfaced in revelations by Wikileaks.
The family avoids media coverage, but is a big deal in social and political circles. Ideology doesn’t appear to matter; Alfy was co-chair of Democrat Bill Clinton’s Florida presidential campaign in 1992, while Pepe was national Vice-Chair of Finance for Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole in 1996.
The citizens of Florida, at this point, don’t seem to have a chance against the power of the Fanjuls and U.S. Sugar, the other behemoth of the Florida sugar industry. U.S. Sugar donated $652,000 to the 2012 political campaigns, almost all to Republicans as they were the ones in control.
As Friends of the Everglades puts it on their website, “ Clearly democracy In Florida has been so corroded by money and special interests that it has ceased to function.” ##
Next time: Yes, there are solutions. Comments welcome!
Thursday, November 28, 2013
I am still working on the second installment of my series on the environmental problems of Florida’s estuaries and Lake Okeechobee. Should be done soon.
But after reading all the criticisms and dire predictions of what will happen because of the tentative, short-term agreement with Iran, I want to add to that discussion.
I happened to be watching TV in August when Obama surprised the world and the Congress by asking them to consider whether Syria should be bombed. It had seemed that the bombs would be dropped any day, and our country embroiled in yet another deadly confrontation.
But when Obama took a different tack, I cheered! (Actually, I also had a few tears in my eyes.) It’s been a very long time since a President didn’t just give in to the militarism that is so strong in our country and go right ahead with another bombing campaign. Instead, he called for discussion of the situation and a vote by the Congress on what should be done. It meant that we, the people, might actually have a voice in what would happen next. And how long has it been since our voices have been heard in Washington?
I was one of the thousands of people who hit the frigid streets of Manhattan just before we started our disastrous invasion of Iraq. Not only was the NYPD hostile to us, penning us in on side streets so we couldn’t reach the rally site near the UN, but it turned out that our opinions didn’t matter. Cheney and the other war mongerers in our government couldn’t care less what we thought.
Now, I’m not giving Obama a pass on the escalation he approved for Afghanistan; the continuation of the prison at Guantanamo; or the drone strikes. The drone strikes are terrorizing civilians in Pakistan, and much of what I have read makes me believe they are counterproductive, turning Pakistanis against us. And, there’s the moral and legal question of having a president decide on assassinations without having to justify them to we, the people.
But his decision to stop and think and wait for diplomacy with Syria, and now with Iran, just might turn out to be the first steps along a road to peace in the Middle East.
It has taken courage for him to do that in the face of all those who say this “weak” response will encourage our enemies. The commentary on network news, most strongly, of course, Fox, has emphasized the danger to U.S. security in negotiating, and, of course, Israel is absolutely appalled. Rarely are peace advocates allowed to air their viewpoint.
But how else can we have peace except by taking the chance that our “enemies” would really rather not lose any more loved ones, really rather not spend their treasure on bombs and tanks instead of food, education, culture, living long enough to have and enjoy grandchildren?
Those who stand to lose if peace takes hold are the arms merchants, the energy companies, the investors who get to manipulate our priorities and attention through fear and then rob us blind as we huddle, afraid.
When Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, for being more open to the Muslim world and acting to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, he said he didn't think he deserved it. Events since then have made his remarks ring as more than just modesty.
But his actions regarding Syria and Iran show that he is determined to try to find a way toward peace. If he can keep it up, his legacy will be far more than improved health care for Americans.
Monday, November 11, 2013
Note: This is the first in a series of posts about environmental problems in South Florida related to polluted Lake Okeechobee and its dangerously frail dike. I am a newcomer to both the problems and the area, having become the owner of a condominium in Jensen Beach this year. My hope is that fresh reporting on this old problem may help inspire concerted, corrective action.
The Army Corps of Engineers committed what should be regarded as an environmental crime this summer and fall, flooding two of Florida’s most biologically rich estuaries with billions of gallons of toxic, polluted water. Dolphins, endangered manatees, fish, oysters, grasses and other marine plants suffered the consequences, and fishing and swimming in the affected areas was forbidden because of high levels of dangerous bacteria .
Take a look at these pictures to get an idea of what happened to the Indian River Lagoon, one of the two estuaries. Filthy water—3 billion gallons a day at the peak in mid-August--contaminated with runoff from farm fields and septic tanks, was diverted east and west from huge Lake Okeechobee. The filth spread like a black, underwater monster through the delicate lagoon.
It happened because heavy rains this past summer raised the water level so high that the aged earthen dike holding in the lake was in danger of failure. In late October, the Corps was still releasing a massive amount to the lagoon: 765.2 million gallons a day.
The Indian River Lagoon is the most biologically diverse estuary in the Continental United States. (An estuary is a body of water open to the sea where fresh water from creeks and rivers mix with salty water that rushes in on the tide.) More than 4,000 species of plants and animals and one-third of the world’s last manatees live in the lagoon. They are delicately adjusted to the constantly changing ratio of fresh to salt water. The beauty of the lagoon is a major reason my husband and I chose recently to buy a condominium near it.
The effect of the deluge of polluted fresh water from the lake was dramatic. It dropped the salinity of the lagoon to zero and created a massive bloom of algae as a result of all the phosphorus and nitrogen in the water. These pollutants come from both farms and leaky home septic systems. Oysters and sea grass beds died, and fishing stopped.
You’d think a discharge of pollution like this would be illegal. Indeed, in the rest of the country, tiny spills can bring criminal prosecution and big fines. But not in this case. It is illegal to dump polluted water into the Everglades, where flow from the lake should go. But there is no law, federal or state, against these discharges into the estuaries. In fact, they are considered necessary to protect people from a catastrophic breach of the dike.
If this were the first time this has happened, you might expect that immediate action is planned to correct the situation. Instead, releases of polluted water happen roughly every ten years when heavy rains hit the state and fill Lake Okeechobee to dangerous levels. “Lake dump,” as the Miami Heraldcalls it, rushed into the lagoon in 2004 and 2005, after hurricanes pounded Florida, and before that, in 1998.
“A Gun Pointed at South Florida”
Built of earth in the 1930s, the Okeechobee dike is a poster child for neglected infrastructure in the United States. It is the most fragile “dam” in the country and is in “grave and imminent danger” of collapse. After New Orleans, Lake Okeechobee is the most vulnerable area in the United States to damage from a Hurricane. (See the size and location of the lake here.Lloyds, the British insurer, reports that the chance of failure of the dike is one in six in any given year without continual intervention by the Army Corps to shore it up.
Most vulnerable are the 40,000 people who live in the immediate vicinity of the lake and could be swept away if the dike bursts, along with thousands of homes. But a burst dike could also contaminate the water supply of the 5 million people who live in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, and part of this area could be submerged. A burst could also “irretrievably damage” the Everglades, according to expert reports.
Although it is named for President Herbert Hoover, the dike was not built to the standards of Nevada’s Hoover Dam, for example. It was built to control floods after a category 5 hurricane hit the lake in 1928, killed 2,500 and caused immense property damage. But as south Florida developed, the 730 square mile lake (half the size of the state of Rhode Island) became the place to put all the water that was in the way of housing developers and the sugar industry. For example, channels into the lake were built to take in water from the Kissimmee River, which naturally flows to the north and away from the lake. Now, Kissimmee water flows south into the lake at six times the rate than it can be pumped out.
So this earthen dike is now being used as a dam to hold a reservoir for sugar farms and as a tank for floodwaters. It is a giant cesspool.
And everyone knows it leaks. A 2006 report prepared for the South Florida Water District describes portions of it as bearing “ a striking resemblance to Swiss cheese.” Failure now would be “a catastrophe for the whole of South Florida,” says the report. One of the experts who studied the situation calls the dike “a gun pointed at South Florida.”
This year, the Army Corps completed a $220 million overhaul of the most vulnerable stretch of the dike, but at the current pace of repair work, bringing the dike up to dam standards will take another decade or more.
That means that it is just about inevitable that polluted water will again flood the lagoon.
Time to Redirect Government Spending
The dike offers a perfect example of how our country has been putting off fixing our infrastructure while spending trillions on our military and the arms industry, and billions every year to subsidize Big Oil and Big Agriculture. The interconnected water problems in South Florida have been studied over and over again for the past 30 years but little gets done. Politicians whine about spending the money, and the status quo suits developers and the sugar industry just fine, thank you.
Meanwhile, the Everglades remains shortchanged of the water that used to flow south naturally from the lake, and the two estuaries periodically become sewers for the lake’s dirty water every time it rains heavily. (To the west, it is the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary that gets the lake dump.)
Fixing these problems will require a concerted, comprehensive and cooperative effort by the state and federal governments, and by all the concerned environmental and other organizations that have been working on different pieces of the problem.
It will cost billions of dollars. And at the moment, it looks like federal and state taxpayers will have to bear that cost, and not other players like the sugar plantations that have been polluting the Everglades for decades.
Stay tuned. In my next post, I’ll take a closer look at Big Sugar and how easily it maintains its grip on Florida’s politicians and legislators. ##