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

Obama, the Peace President?

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

An Environmental Crime in Florida: Legal and Continuing

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 Herald
calls 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.  ##
Comments please!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


            It happened without really being noticed. It’s as if someone declared a new standard for  suburban landscapes, no leaves allowed, and over time nearly everyone fell into line. There’s hardly a home—or office building--where clearing the leaves has not become an expensive, polluting, unhealthy and ear-splitting exercise. Our yard care practices are subverting the very qualities of life—clean air, quiet and good health—that suburbanites supposedly treasure.
            People used to just rake the leaves off their lawns to keep the grass from getting smothered, but left the leaves in shrub beds and borders. This natural mulch kept the plant roots warm in the winter and discouraged weeds in the spring.  By summer, the leaves had  decayed into the dirt, renewing the fertility of the soil.
A perfect  system of sustainability, this natural cycle was free, used no energy except burning a few calories and caused no pollution.
But in the next few weeks as the autumn leaves fall, do-it-yourselfers and paid crews will be out there with blowers roaring, damaging the hearing of their handlers--who rarely wear any ear protection--and polluting the air.  They blast every last leaf not just off lawns but also out of shrub and groundcover beds.  Then in the spring, homeowners pay for mulch, dyed a uniform color, to spread on the achingly bare beds.
         One result of this mania for neatness is the pollution of the air right in our residential neighborhoods. An Orange County, California Grand Jury studied the pollution caused by leaf blowers in 1999 in order to issue recommendations to municipalities and other government entities. They found thatexhaust pollution per leaf blower per hour is the equivalent of the amount of smog from 17 cars driven one hour and is localized in the area of blower usage.”
            Furthermore, they found that the high-velocity air jets whip up about five pounds per hour per blower of particulate matter “composed of dust, fecal matter, pesticides, fungi, chemicals, fertilizers, spores, and street dirt which consists of lead and organic and elemental carbon.” 
            Experts agree that asthma is worsened by, and maybe caused by, particulate matter in the air.  Every time you use a leaf blower, or let a landscaping crew do so, you are contributing to the asthma, allergies and other breathing problems suffered by your own family members and those of your neighbors.
            And by the way, the Orange County grand jury also found that clearing leaves the old-fashioned way, with rakes and brooms, took just 6% more labor time than the blower method.
            The bottom line is that Long Island’s home and business owners are unnecessarily spending money, polluting the air and disturbing the peace in pursuit of an unnaturally neat vision of a landscape. Let the leaves stay in your flower and shrub beds, and use a rake to clear the lawn. Work with nature, and we’ll all breathe better in the quiet. 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Shoe Envy

I just got through reading an article in GQ about men's dress shoes that are made so well and look so great that they are an investment that will last a life time.

I'm jealous.

It doesn't matter what you're willing to pay for a woman's shoe.   It won't be made of "shell cordovan" like the Alden brand featured by GQ, which I now learn is "the most indestructible leather around...made from the butts of horses." Who knew?

Nor will it have welting that attaches the upper of the shoe to the sole with stitching and cement, not cheap glue. The Crockett & Jones cap-toe shoe touted by GQ is thus immune to puddles and can always be resoled. Resoling. What a quaint idea. I think there is one cobbler left in my town of 200,000 plus, and he's old. Very old.

Nope, the high-priced women's shoes that are the rage these days are best known  not for the quality of their construction but for how high they are and how uncomfortable. How you can barely walk in them, can't run in them or dance in them without seriously risking an ankle or taking a fall. How if you want to do any of those things--including just walking to work--you best wear sneakers or other versions of athletic shoes that are a good investment only if you're also buying stock in Nike.

No, I should, for a random example, pay $895 for Louboutin patent leather pumps with a 5 and1/2 inch heel and 2-inch platform because of their "distinctly sexy aesthetic" and "vibrantly lacquered red soles," according to an ad from Neiman Marcus. Nowhere does the ad tell me anything about the construction of the shoe or why it is worth nearly $1,000, because such questions, of course, have nothing to do with Fashion! And fashion is pain, oh yeah.

But for women, not men. It's such BS. I long for beautiful, well-made, comfortable shoes that are also stylish. I want elegant evening shoes I don't have to kick off so I can dance. They should have leather soles--not rubber or plastic like almost all women's shoes these days. I had an epiphany about high-heeled narrow shoes when I was about 13. I had bought yellow patent leather pointy-toed high heels to go with my new Easter outfit that Spring, and I walked several blocks to church in them that Easter morning. By the time I got back home, my feet were killing me. I swore never to do that to myself again, and, with rare exceptions, never have.

I can and do blame the designers because it really does seem that they are united in a deliberate, conscious effort to ruin women's feet while charging us outrageous prices. There's no question about the ruin-the-feet aspect of this--the orthopedists of America have been waging a campaign for years about the crippling effects of not only high-heeled shoes but also narrow-toed shoes.

I can and do blame the women's magazines and the models and women celebrities who set the example for girls and women trying hard to fit in and compete for male attention.

But we are not robots. We think. We make choices. And isn't it time for today's women leaders to, if you'll excuse the expression, take a stand on women's shoes? To say no, we won't sacrifice our feet, won't suffer bunions and foot surgery because of shoes designed by sadists and woman haters. Who will condemn the very idea that women should have a toe removed so they can fit into the unnatural shape of some shoes.

Meanwhile, I'm stuck with my envy and some very nice sandals and wedges that will never qualify me as a fashionista, but will keep me out of the operating room. What about you?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Routine Pelvic Exams Lead to Unnecessary Hysterectomies, Experts Say

It's been quite a while since I've written anything about the ongoing scandal of unnecessary hysterectomies. I've been spending my time working locally in my home town of Huntington, NY to create community gardens and grow-to-give gardens via my organization LICAN. This is my way of fighting giant agri-businesses in a way that will eventually mean their demise as people realize that communities can become self-sufficient and supply their own vegetables and eggs.

But a Jane Brody article in the April 30 NY Times has brought me back to the subject. Brody, a vastly experienced and reliable reporter, quotes experts who say that those annual, invasive pelvic exams that gynos have told us forever that we need to have--well, we don't need them unless we have troubling symptoms, or it's been more than 3 years since we've had a Pap smear to test for cervical cancer. (And, by the way, if your cervix has been removed, no need for the Pap smear either.)

According to an article quoted by Brody, "frequent routine (pelvic) bimanual examinations may partly explain why U.S. rates of ovarian cystectomy (removal) and hysterectomy are more than twice as high as rates in European countries where the use of the pelvic examination is limited to symptomatic women."

The scenario is that if a woman with no symptoms undergoes a pelvic exam,  the doctor may find something suspicious that can lead to unnecessary surgery and other procedures, not to mention high anxiety and costs.

Indeed, there is no good medical evidence to justify routine pelvic exams in the absence of troubling symptoms, the experts told Brody.

But this, of course, doesn't mean that most of the gynecologists we see will stop recommending them any time soon. The doctors' trade group, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. endorses them even though they acknowledge the lack of medical evidence.

And, when 250 doctors were asked about doing routine pelvic exams, nearly all said they would do them routinely on women without symptoms, whether they were 18, 35, 55 or 70. This included a 55-year old who had no ovaries, uterus or cervix.

Yes, women's treatment by this branch of medicine is a scandal, and it's all about the money. Since these doctors get paid for an estimated 63.4 million pelvic exams and about 600,000 hysterectomies a year, I surely don't expect them to stop voluntarily.

Tell your friends!