By Linda Young, Director of Florida Clean Water Network
Think about a river or spring or little bayou that you dearly love. As someone who lives in Florida, it’s almost a certainty that you have a special place on the water that is near and dear to your heart. One day you hear that a big powerful company is going to put a huge pipe into this water and overwhelm it with toxic chemicals. It will no longer be safe to do the things that you have been doing in that water. What would you do?
First you might talk to your neighbors about this and see if they want to help you stop this pollution pipe from ruining this irreplaceable part of Florida that you love. You plan a visit to the state environmental agency to talk to them about how Florida and federal laws could be used to stop these toxic chemicals from coming your way.
The state officials say, “Oh no!!! We don’t want to stop this, we want to help this big, politically powerful company make even more money so they will keep donating lots and lots of money to our political bosses. In fact, we are ignoring our laws so that the pollution can flow freely and the company won’t ever have to worry about the consequences of their pollution.”
So you go to the federal environmental agency in charge of environmental protection to ask them for help. They pretend that the state is doing everything according to the rules and besides, they are much too busy to get involved with state issues.
So you hire a lawyer or two and you take your issue to the court that reviews environmental permits. But the judges are all hired and controlled by the politicians that are getting the campaign contributions from the big polluter who wants to dump toxic chemicals in your special water.
Hmmmm . . . what to do???? Should you just accept that this special water that you and hundreds of thousands of other people use and love will become a dumping ground for toxic chemicals like dioxin and other organochlorine chemicals? Or should you keep looking for a way to use the laws of the land to protect your special water?
This is actually happening right now to people who live on or near and use the St Johns River. Florida’s only American Heritage River, a bass-fishing haven, a home to hundreds of manatees, a place where families get their supper every night, a place where you can throw a shrimp net and come up with beautiful white shrimp. It’s where parents take their kids water skiing, where sailing regattas are held and where people gather to renew their souls every day.
So the people described above found a new attorney to help them. After lots of legal research and mind-numbing record searches, the attorney found a way to by-pass the compromised agencies, administrative courts and bureaucrats.
Attorney Steve Medina, on behalf of the citizens that live on and near the St Johns River, filed a Petition for Mandamus in the Florida Supreme Court. It is 50 pages long with a 600-page appendix. Briefly, it asks the court to require the Board of Trustees (Governor and Cabinet) to review requests to “privately use” publicly-owned lands before the state environmental agency is allowed to simply “give” these public resources away as pollution “mixing zones.” The agency admits that the only reason to “give” these sovereign submerged lands (the bottom of the river) away is to save the politically powerful polluter money. In this case the polluter is Georgia-Pacific paper company. The paper company is owned by the Koch Brothers who are almost the largest contributors to extreme right-wing candidates and causes in the entire country. They own lots of industries and create a lot of pollution. They are very opposed to regulations as you might imagine.
The Florida Constitution requires that the Trustees review requests to privately use public lands, and to make sure that they are not contrary to the public’s interest. If they decide that the request should be granted, then the private user must pay for the public lands they will use for their own gain. This requirement is being ignored by the Governor and Cabinet right now. For Georgia-Pacific/Koch Brothers’ situation, the FDEP is taking extraordinary measures to accommodate the company’s pollution/profit needs. The toxic chemicals that will be dumped at a rate of 25 to 47 million gallons per day, and would not normally be allowed under the Clean Water Act or even Florida’s more lax regulations. So FDEP will unilaterally, without any review by the Board of Trustees, grant Georgia-Pacific/Koch Brothers huge loopholes that make the toxic dumping allowable.
Here’s a mental picture that may help you understand the magnitude of the gratuitous “private use” of public lands that FDEP is enabling:
• The pollution pipe is 1043’ long across the St Johns River in Palatka;
• It is populated with “dispersers” along the way which spread out the millions of gallons of toxic chemicals and “solids” from the paper-making process;
• Remember the BP disaster and the picture of the wellhead spewing oil and water into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 53,000 to 62,000 barrels per day.
• If you translate barrels into gallons that would be 2.226 million to 2.604 million gallons per day.
• Georgia-Pacific/Koch Brothers’ pipe will be equal by volume, to between 11 and 21 BP blowout wells EVERY DAY. 7 DAYS A WEEK. FOR AS LONG INTO THE FUTURE AS THEY WANT.
• There will be no cleanup. There will be no requirement for Georgia-Pacific/Koch Brothers to test the water in the St Johns River.
• The dioxin-contaminated “solids” will not have to meet pollution laws as they leave the dispersers along the length of the pipe. Instead they will blow toxic solids up and down the river, smothering grass beds where the shrimp now nestle, the baby fishes hide and the manatees graze.
• Georgia-Pacific/Koch Brothers will not pay one dime for the privilege of privately using the resources that will be lost beyond the narrow piece of submerged land where the pipe actually lies, even though the Florida Constitution requires a public-interest test and payment.
The greatest concern that Mr. Medina had when he filed the Petition with the Florida Supreme Court was that it would become a victim of the political crossfire already underway there. Governor Rick Scott, who is a named defendant in Medina’s case, is aligned with Republican forces trying to unseat three Florida Supreme Court justices who haven’t voted according to their liking. Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen wrote in his column on September 29th that the attack is being funded by . . . yep you guessed it . . . the Koch Brothers.
Here’s another reference from the NY Times:
Fortunately, the Florida Supreme Court recently moved the case to Leon County Circuit court where the chief judge there, a Bush appointee, kept it for himself to preside over. Georgia-Pacific has already filed a motion to intervene in the case, which Medina did not oppose, since it is primarily about their pollution pipe and another one being sought by the Buckeye pulp mill in Perry Florida.
So where does all of this leave those taxpayers who just want to keep shrimping, skiing, fishing and owning property on the St Johns River? It leaves them caught in the midst of a firestorm between the Koch Brothers and their political operatives and possibly the last independent arbiters for Florida’s system of justice.
Where does it leave the bass, the manatees, the shrimp, the flounder, the sunfish, etc.? They are trapped in a different system over which they have absolutely no control. It provides their habitat, their oxygen and their food. They are at our mercy to not use and abuse their surroundings to death. They are relying on us to not give our power away to forces that will privately “use” and “use” and “use” and never even give a thought to what they will destroy forever.
Linda’s note in case you are wondering about the numbers:
• 53,000 to 62,000 barrels per day, X 42 gallons per barrel = 2.226 million to 2.604 million gallons