Florida's Shame: Toxic Water, Toxic Air

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In battles of the people vs. certain corporate interests, when we are up against endless spending on massive PR machines, high-paid lobbyists, and bought politicians, we rely on one of the most valuable weapons there is: independent journalism.

In ProPublica and the Palm Beach Post's recent investigative report on sugarcane burning, we see journalism at its finest. By placing air quality sensors on Glades residents’ homes and tracking every burn during the latest harvest season, these reporters debunk sugar’s infamous claim that “air in the Glades is cleaner than urban areas.”

Every year during the nine month harvest season, the Glades are exposed to raining ash and polluted smoke from Big Sugar’s cheap but harmful practice of sugarcane burning. Fine particulate matter from the cane burns gets deep into the lungs and even into the bloodstream of residents, and has been linked to a multitude of health issues, from heart attacks to cancer.

It is common sense that repeated exposure to smoke is not healthy. However, sugar has been able to dodge any meaningful regulation of their harmful practice using their usual tactics of well-funded disinformation campaigns, "capturing" the regulators, and skewing the data in their favor.

In this investigation, reporters collected air pollution data directly from residents' homes, providing the much-needed numbers to back what we know with common sense — that sugarcane burning is linked to harmful air pollution.


The fight to force Big Sugar to modernize appears a lot more promising. You can help — send an email to Florida's Commissioner of Agriculture below.

And, as always, stick with us!

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"Captured" Regulators Turned Sugar Lobbyists

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A tactic used by the sugar industry to keep their pollution and harmful practices unregulated to any practical extent is to “capture” the regulators. They do this by getting real cozy and friendly with those charged with regulating their activities, and then, eventually, they offer them a job. The regulators go to work for the very industry they were supposed to be regulating.

In economics, this is called Regulatory Capture.

The concept of Regulatory Capture is easy to understand once you know what to look for and can be dangerous to the public when executed. 

It's not just the outsized campaign contributions injected into the world of politics by Big Sugar, they rely on these experts to prolong the bleeding of the public’s resources to ensure private gain for themselves.

This is by no means exclusive to the sugar industry – scores of industries use this tactic. The tobacco industry famously manipulated science and prolonged debate for decades doing this. The oil and chemical industries are also notorious for this behavior.

But in Florida, for our waterways and the Everglades, the deep pockets of Big Sugar ensure ample salaries and incentives to hire the top brass at these agencies when they’re ready to leave the public sector. Then, poof, the regulator has switched sides. Now, the charade continues allowing Big Sugar to introduce them to elected officials and the political process as “the experts.”

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Toxic Algae Contaminates the Public's Drinking Water

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For sugar giant's West Palm Beach Headquarters, the chickens of contaminated drinking water have come home to roost.

Congratulations to Florida Crystals and US Sugar, the proud parents of today's sprawling, toxic 500-square mile cyanobacteria bloom in our 700-square mile Lake O. Yes, there are aunts and uncles of industrial agriculture in the Kissimmee chain of lakes, and distant second cousins twice removed of agricultural runoff inputs east and west of Lake O, but there is only one Big Sugar daddy.

As inevitable as night following day, the historic, never-before-seen levels of cyanobacteria toxins in West Palm Beach and Palm Beach’s drinking water has triggered Florida Crystal's PR machine. Yesterday, West Palm Beach residents reported phone calls from opinion-seeking pollsters asking if they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Florida Crystals. If your answer was "unfavorable" they asked you if "sustainability" practices would change your opinion. They also asked how long you've lived in West Palm Beach. That seems like an odd question, doesn't it? Here's why they're asking you.

If you've lived here since the 1970s, you'd know the sugarcane fields that ring the southern edge of Lake Okeechobee grew from less than 50,000 acres to over 500,000 acres today.

If you've lived here since the 1970s, you'd know Florida Crystals and US Sugar aka Big Sugar, have back-pumped the polluted water from their massive cane fields into Lake O and the Everglades for decades – with the blessings of past Florida Governors, Water Management Districts and DEP Secretaries alike.

It wasn't until they were sued in federal court that dumping straight into the Everglades was curtailed and back-pumping into the Lake would happen only under rare circumstances. But the damage, the never-say-die legacy pollution, had already been done. The barn door was legally (partially) closed long after the cyanobacteria bloom herd of horses had galloped away.

Like a Frankenstein monster seeking its creator, the toxic bacteria has traveled to the drinking water supply of the City of West Palm Beach, headquarters of Florida Crystals and backyard to US Sugar.

And one of them is calling around to find out how many villagers in West Palm Beach know what a pitchfork is and how to use it.

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Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Sugar, Oh My!

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Three politically powerful industries – tobacco, fossil fuels and sugar — have each had significant and detrimental impacts on Florida law, rules, and regulations for over 50 years. Hence the understood moniker “BIG.”

All three, guided by insatiable appetites to do what they please, when they please, have worked for decades to obscure facts and confuse the obvious. They each do it through a menagerie of highly paid consultants, former regulators, “experts” and politicians (some purposefully complicit, others unwittingly).

Tobacco’s stranglehold over Florida politics has waned, thanks to enormous lawsuits and settlement agreements. We see Big Oil's political might in decline as well, as even Republican politicians are beginning to whisper the words "sea level rise" and "climate change."

But the mack daddy of the three – Big Sugar – continues to have its way with far too many decision makers in Florida and Washington, D.C. An entire cottage industry of fakesters exists – from contrived "environmental" organizations and “news sources” to almost every lobbying and law firm in the Sunshine State doling out tens of millions of dollars each year to happy-to-accept-them politicians.

For decades, Floridians have been forced to deal with an entity so big and so dirty, it became nearly impossible for truth and science to win the day. And all of this for a crop that isn’t even considered a food and is subsidized by the American taxpayer and consumer.

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Sugar Industry Trying to Hijack Everglades Water, Again

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Deteriorating conditions on Lake Okeechobee, a red tide in the Gulf that has lingered for months, and looming threats of toxic and polluted discharges of hundreds of billions of gallons to both coasts of Florida is our reality today.

Lake O is two feet too high and is covered in toxic cyanobacteria, blue-green algae. Toxic blooms are showing up in places we’ve not seen before. Meanwhile, the Everglades are parched, having received little or no water for months.

Driving all of these circumstances is the sugar industry. A broken water management system, designed in the 1950s and being kept broken to appease two sugar corporations, is serving as a loaded gun pointed at both coasts of Florida. It’s déjà vu all over again.

Today, you have the opportunity to do something about it.

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When the Well is Dry, We Will Know the Worth of Water — Benjamin Franklin, 1746

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Nothing is more vital to life than water. It is not an overstatement to say that Florida’s economy lives or dies by it. But for too many decades, we have taken it all for granted, without purposeful eyes on it for an abundant future.

A revolution of thinking must occur in our state, not with pitchforks, but with every lawmaker concerned about our water and our waterways. From the quality of our water to the quantity and the directional flow of water, protecting our most important resource is the pressing issue of our time.

Politicians come and go – most of them every eight years. Our question is: How do we ensure clean and abundant water is built into the DNA of every elected official in Florida, regardless of which office they hold, where they live, or which side of the political aisle they sit?

We do it by bringing more Floridians into the conversation.

In this week’s Everglades Review, you will see a snippet of the troubles occurring for the Everglades and waterways across Florida.

We will continue to be a leader in keeping these issues front and center. But Florida cannot protect its heirlooms without you in the battle with us. So, as always, we ask you to stick with us!

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Moving Water: The Everglades and Big Sugar

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Some in Tallahassee have been convinced by Florida’s sugar barons that our fight is about sugarcane, but the barons are intentionally wrong. The fight is about water and fairness.

The public, including the Everglades, need clean and ample water to survive. For too long, the water for South Florida has been managed to accommodate the sugar industry, with devastating economic and environmental consequences.

Making matters worse is the inherent unfairness to the taxpayers of Florida who have been forced to pay the vast majority of the costs to clean up the sugar industry’s pollution. Keep in mind, these corporate sugar growers use the federal sugar subsidy program to further protect and enrich themselves – again, off the backs of the American taxpayer and consumer.

Our work is, and has always been, about changing these paradigms.

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The State of Our Water

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Polluted discharges from Lake Okeechobee to the Caloosahatchee River continue. Devastating discharges to the St. Lucie River have resumed. Nestle is exhausting our natural springs in North Florida, while US Sugar and Florida Crystals are draining the Everglades of its life source.

Water is not only the public’s asset and greatest resource, but also our heritage. Today, in too many parts of our state, our water and waterways are in a world of hurt.

But on the horizon, there is hope. Keeping his promise to all Floridians, Governor Ron DeSantis is bringing online the most critical components for true Everglades restoration, at record funding levels for the state. With Everglades restoration finally recognized as a vital player in mitigating the effects of climate change, and with the nearly unanimous support of Florida’s congressional delegation, our chances at record-level funding from Congress and President Biden are bright.

For now? Catch up on what you missed this week in the Everglades. And stay tuned!

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Clean Water Around the Corner

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We have momentum in addressing the heart of Everglades restoration – moving clean freshwater south from Lake O and south of Tamiami Trail – but we cannot rest on our laurels. The pressures from outside forces don’t take days off, so neither do we.

In this Everglades Review, you will read a fairly accurate update on Everglades restoration from Florida Trend Magazine. You will get the opportunity to weigh in on a once-in-a-decade operating guide for water in Lake Okeechobee with the Army Corps of Engineers, and you’ll get a peek at what some of our partners in this restoration effort are up to. 

The fight to save and protect the Everglades, three vital coastal estuaries, and the drinking water supply for 8 million Floridians will never be easy. The desire to make money off the backs of our natural systems is as old as time. Compounding that is today’s political climate and lax campaign finance laws, which allow greater access for special interests to have their way. 

The antidote to Big Money? An informed and loud citizenry.

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For the Everglades, Not a Bad Year After All

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2020 is ending on a high note, and no one and nothing is more excited about this fact than the Everglades and three nationally-vital coastal estuaries, including the headwaters of the Florida Keys.

We have a Governor, Ron DeSantis, who has not wavered in his commitment to push back against the status quo and get our most important Everglades restoration project – the EAA Reservoir and Treatment Project – moving. This is by far the most important project for Everglades restoration. We’ve waited more than 20 years for this day. Despite all the hurdles the sugar industry and their lobbyists have thrown their way, the Governor and the Governing Board and staff of the South Florida Water Management District have ushered in the project in record time. Permits have been issued and work has begun!

We have a Congressman, Brian Mast, who has been an Everglades warrior in Washington, D.C., like few before him. Congressman Mast joins a small, but amazing group of men and women who have shown courage in the face of unbelievable adversity to bring Everglades restoration to the point we are at today. He knows who and what is killing the Everglades and is not shy about calling them by name – the sugar industry.

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