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!