Don't Make Us Clean Up The Everglades, But Thanks For The $100 Million

The Miami Herald reported on August 11, 2011, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it will use $100 million to acquire permanent easements from eligible landowners and help restore wetlands on nearly 24,000 acres of agricultural land in the Northern Everglades.

Meanwhile the Florida delegation in Congress is telling the federal government to stop trying to clean up its waterways, including some in the Everglades.  Does this make sense?

Florida politicians were upset that the federal Environmental Protection Agency was forced, after a lawsuit, to (gasp!) follow the law and provide standards that would protect the state waters from nutrient pollution. (Nutrient pollution is one of those phrases in environmental world that sounds good – we all want more nutrients in our diet—but in the world of water pollution, nutrients is the term used for waste matter, measured as nitrogen and phosphorous, from humans, cattle and runoff including fertilizer.)  A particularly noxious result of excessive nutrient pollution is the proliferation of harmful algae blooms – a situation in which once-clear waters are choked with algae and green with slime creating dead zones. Florida, with its huge agribusinesses, rampant development (at least until the bubble burst), large cattle operations (Florida is second to Texas in cattle, who would have guessed?) and iconic Everglades as well as countless other ecological gems, needed to clamp down on this nutrient pollution by requiring the polluters to control their dead zone pollution. EPA – under the Bush administration -- concluded that Florida needed to set numeric standards (“you need a 67 to pass”), i.e., limits for pollutants rather than vague narrative standards (“all students should strive to do their best”), and the agency subsequently agreed to a court-ordered schedule to issue those improved requirements. 

Florida politicians, as they are famous for doing, decided that EPA was demanding too much, i.e., requiring polluters to control their pollution.  This is a recurring theme. The sugar plantations that discharge into the Everglades, for example, are one of the most subsidized and politically connected corporations in the country.  Big Sugar is shielded from global competition by federally mandated import quotas, and provided an ample supply of low-wage labor by federal immigration rules.  But the application of national clean water rules has been, as evinced by literally decades of litigation and legislative run-arounds, apparently too much government for this corporate fiefdom to tolerate.  Having caused most of the water pollution problems in the adjacent Everglades, sugar interests use their outsized power to avoid responsibility, as CNN pointed out and which mystery writer Carl Hiaasen has used as backdrops in many of his novels.

During the budget fight, Rep. Rooney (R-FL) sponsored an amendment to the 2011 funding bill to stop EPA from setting standards for nutrient pollution in Florida.  The amendment passed the House 237-189 with only 4 members of the Florida delegation voting against it. The Senate, in the end, got the House to drop this and most of the anti-environmental riders.  Rep. Diaz-Balart (R-FL) offered a similar amendment to the FY2012 funding bill that passed the Subcommittee 26-19.

Then, without a single legislative hearing and citing the Florida nutrient standards issue as the rationale, John Mica (R-FL), chairman of the house committee responsible for curbing water pollution, pushed through a bill to overturn 40 years of environmental law and fundamentally undermine the federal government’s longstanding oversight role in the Clean Water Act, as I discussed in a previous blog.  Seven members from Florida voted against this amendment.

If Floridians don’t want clean water as their elected politicians seem to indicate, many states do and could use the money to make real impact in their area.  Or do they only want clean water as long as someone else pays for it? If Floridians want it and want those responsible to pay, they need to let their representatives know.