Tuesday, July 10, 2018

For Florida Voters: A Summer Of Discontent (Driven By Massive Pollution) ... by gimleteye

June 27 satellite photo of algae (on left) in Lake Okeechobee moving toward the St. Lucie River. Image courtesy of Planet Labs, Inc., produced by Earthrise Media. (S-308 - Port Mayaca Spillway to the C-44 canal)
Funny, about polls and voters and the environment. If you put the question to voters but lead off with questions about crime, immigration, about jobs and leave the environment -- out of context -- to the end of the list, public attitudes skew away from the environment.

But when cancer strikes, or a disease linked to toxics like Alzheimer's, and news breaks out; suddenly environmental issues percolate to the top of voter concerns. If acres of toxic cyanobacteria line the beaches you love or the rivers where you recreate or the estuaries your property borders or your jobs depend on; well then, concerns for the environment tend to bloom just like blankets of algae in Lake Okeechobee on a day overheated by climate change.

For certain lawmakers aspiring to higher office in Florida, this creates an unwelcome problem.

It's unwelcome because lawmakers -- for example Rick Scott running for US Senate, Adam Putnam running for Scott's job as governor, and Matt Caldwell running for Putnam's job as agriculture secretary -- long ago attached their political future to polluters who, surprise!, are the biggest funders of campaigns. Polluters like Big Sugar who command water management in Florida and the laws regulating its operations. Polluters, who profit by shifting the costs of their pollution to taxpayers.

Solving environmental problems makes a great talking point until an explosion of pollution -- which is happening now -- points to the record of failure; failure that starts by shifting public focus from the polluters to future taxpayers. Kicking the can down the road on the environment starts looking like a nightmare when your family's health is at imminent risk.

When pollution events explode on the ground and in the news in July, only a few months before a mid-term election in which Florida -- again -- will play a central role in the outcome of the Trump investigations, the problem magnifies. Big Sugar, thoroughly invested in the status quo, demands the mobilization of a counter-wave of outrage.

That is why every trick that Big Sugar deployed over decades to misdirect the public anger is being pulled out again. The tricks are thread-bare, like old and out-of-date clothing, used too much. For example: that septic tanks along the waterways in Martin and Lee counties are to blame. That development and dairy farms north of Lake Okeechobee are to blame. That sunlight is to blame. That the dam holding back Lake Okeechobee is to blame. Big Sugar and its political fingers point in every direction but their own. That fact that phosphorous and their legacy pollution of the Everglades continues to spread. The fact that every regulation governing the operation of the dike and flood control structures is exquisitely calibrated to put industry needs ahead of public health.

Until the guacamole thick algae came back, carrying with it major concerns about the health effects on hundreds of thousands of primarily Republican voters, the tricks had been put back into their bag and stowed away in the closet. Why? The severe algae outbreaks of winter 2016 abated. In response, Florida lawmakers came up with a $2 billion plan for a reservoir south of sugarcane lands to "solve the problem once and for all".

At the time, independent scientists tried their best to explain why the plan won't work: not enough surface area to clean up the pollution. For many years, the National Research Council -- the nation's preeminent science experts -- had sanely reached the same point. Neither reason nor science deterred the lawmakers from grabbing an expedient solution; expedient being defined as that which costs their main campaign funders, Big Sugar, the least.

Today, Florida politicians are blaming federal bureaucracy for being "too slow" in completing other Everglades related projects; projects, by the way, that were only agreed to by the state after being sued in federal court under the Clean Water Act by environmentalists. Yes, the same Clean Water Act that the Trump administration and the GOP Congress are determined to undermine, erode, and neuter because -- they swear -- the states are better places for laws to protect people and the environment. Oh, and there is one more place for Scott, Putnam and Caldwell to blame: environmentalists.

In their bag, this is their most thread-bare trick of all.

How the trick works: try to divide environmentalists into those you can work with and those you can't. Tag the ones who are unafraid to tell the public the facts and truth. Call them, "radical". Call them, "extremists". This was the clarion call of the Wise Use Movement in the Reagan era, and it is the same tired trick today.

What are these "radicals" saying? For one, a $2 billion, 30 foot deep reservoir with high walls is just going to be the largest and most massive man-made lake for more algae than we ever built before. That it can't possibly meet water quality standards as a result. And that, even if this "reservoir" is built, it can't store anywhere near enough water to help the estuaries or Florida Bay or the Everglades. The "radicals" said two years ago, that the legislation passed by Florida legislators was "a Trojan Horse" set into the middle of taxpayers. What it can do: help drain or irrigate Big Sugar fields at times of surge demand, either in drought or flood conditions.

Here is what else the "extremists" are saying: that the state of Florida should pull back the long-term leases it granted -- according to a new rule promoted by Representative Matt Caldwell in 2013 and supported by Putnam and Gov. Scott -- on nearly 25,000 acres now being farmed by corporate welfare Big Sugar barons. This is public property, as would the entirety of US Sugar Corporations lands if Gov. Rick Scott had exercised the option to purchase its 187,000 acres in 2010. The Fanjul sugar barons blocked the land deal. It would have been a first step toward a solution, but it never happened because Big Sugar politics got in the way.

This and all the dirty tricks would have been left in the old bag, but for the current terrible outbreak of algae affecting both Florida coasts in a hot July leading up to the mid-term elections. So next time the words "radical" and "extremists" are applied to Big Sugar's targets -- like Bullsugar or Sierra Club -- pay attention to what political candidates these groups decided to endorse. If you can't give money to Bullsugar or to Sierra Club to help fund their efforts, then by all means give your votes to the candidates they support. Only if enough citizens exercise their right and responsibility to vote, can we ever hope to change Florida's polluting ways.


Note: I am a volunteer board member of the Bullsugar Alliance, Friends of the Everglades, and a past leader of the Florida Sierra Club.

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