Economy & Trade, Environment, Headlines, North America

ENVIRONMENT-US: Funding Questions Dog Everglades Clean-Up

Mark Weisenmiller

TAMPA, Florida, Jul 3 2008 (IPS) - Environmentalists in Florida are excited over the state’s planned 1.75-billion-dollar buyout of 187,000 acres of land owned by the United States Sugar Corporation as part of a restoration of the vast Everglades wetlands, although many of the details of the deal remain sketchy.

“This is a clear signal to the federal government that the state of Florida is serious about cleaning up the Everglades and that the federal government needs to be more efficient in paying their part [for the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration plan, or CERP],” said Holly Binns, field director for Environment Florida.

“The federal government has been extremely slow in appropriating the money needed for some of these projects of CERP,” she told IPS, “but I’m not sure this recent development will help with this or not.”

“We share the enthusiasm of everybody about this project. Obviously it’s in the initial stages and there’s many directions that all of this can go,” said Brad Sewell, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defence Council. “There’s a lot of CERP projects that can and should be continued. How much, and how many benefits will come from this…well, people are still questioning this.”

The Everglades is the world’s biggest swamp, but the encroachment of farming and real estate development has disrupted the ecosystem’s natural water flow and polluted much of the wetlands.

The Everglades hold rare and endangered species, such as the American crocodile, Florida panther and West Indian manatee. It has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve, a World Heritage Site and a Wetland of International Importance.

The CERP restoration plan contains 68 different types of restoration projects, but most have yet to begin because the state and federal government are quibbling over how much each is going to pay and other details of the plan.

Funding is primary reason the proposed buyout has not been wholeheartedly embraced by local taxpayers. Numerous Floridians have written to their local newspapers wondering how a state that has had recent financial cutbacks in the funding of their public schools, law enforcement agencies, fire departments, state-run programmes for the disabled and mentally retarded children, and other essential social programmes is going to find 1.75 billion dollars to buy the land.

On Jun. 27, the South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) admitted that the 1.75-billion-dollar number is just an estimate. Theoretically, the SFWMD is to pay the funds from money already in its coffers. Practically, state and federal government programmes of such a magnitude rarely finish on time or on budget.

Once finalised, the buyout will take six years to complete and 1,700 U.S. Sugar employees will eventually lose their jobs.

Announcing the deal on Jun. 24, Governor Crist said “Sixty years ago President Harry Truman came to South Florida to dedicate Everglades National Park. Today we follow in the great footsteps…We have an opportunity to provide the critical missing link in our restoration activities. I can envision no better gift to the Everglades, or the people of Florida, or to our country than to place in public ownership this missing link that represents the key to true restoration.”

“We always felt that there was a ‘white box’ or a ‘giant white sugar cube’ between Lake Okeechobee and the Everglades,” said John Adornato, Suncoast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). “You just couldn’t touch that land that was owned by U.S. Sugar. Lake Okeechobee was the pulsating heart of the Everglades, if you will, but it was cut off due to the sugar lands. But that will now end, depending on if the buyout actually happens.”

The land owned by U.S. Sugar is mostly immediately south of Lake Okeechobee. Those 197,000 acres – an area slightly less than the size of New York City – run south deep into the Everglades. Lake Okeechobee is not environmentally healthy, as large amounts of fertiliser runoff has damaged its ecosystem.

For years, U.S. Sugar Corp., which began operations in the area in 1931, had an exemption from state environmental protection laws. Six years ago, David Guest, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice, filed a lawsuit alleging that U.S. Sugar was, in essence, polluting Lake Okeechobee.

In June 2007, a federal judge agreed, ruling that the practice of pumping polluted water from drainage canals into the lake created toxic byproducts that threatened public health and the drinking water supply of local communities.

Asked if believed the lawsuit played any role in the company’s decision to sell, Guest said, “Yes, absolutely. There’s no doubt about that.”

“When U.S. Sugar was faced with the fact that they had to comply with the law like everybody else, they started to ask themselves if it would be economically feasible for them,” he told IPS.

Eric Eikenberg, chief of staff for Gov. Crist, said that it took about seven months for the buyout plan to be formulated. “Any opportunity that you have to acquire land, and connect it to wetlands, you should take. Look, this is 187,000 acres that U.S. Sugar has. That’s an incredible amount of land and it’s going to be an incredible contribution to the restoration of the Everglades when all of this is done,” said Eikenberg.

Numerous attorneys for both parties are now in the process of negotiating the details of the buyout. The SFWMD will pay for the 187,000 acres by way of bonds and it also will sell unwanted U.S. Sugar possessions that it will acquire if or when the buyout transpires.

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