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Foundation: Ag not paying its share of Everglades cleanup

Posted Mar 27, 2012 by William March

Updated Mar 27, 2012 at 04:30 PM

A new study by an Everglades advocacy group contends the South Florida agriculture industry, including big sugar growers, isn’t paying its share of the cost of cleaning up pollution of the Everglades.

The study—access it here —by the Everglades Foundation says the industry contributes 76 percent of the pollution in the Everglades, but pays only 24 percent of the $106 million annual clean-up costs.

Taxpayers end up picking up 66 percent of the tab, or $70 million a year, mostly from South Florida Water Management District taxes, but also state and federal taxes, according to the study.

The Foundation contends that violates the “polluter pays” constitutional amendment passed by Florida voters in 1996, which says those polluting the Everglades are required to pick up the tab for cleanup.

Spokesmen for the South Florida sugar industry, one of the largest components of the Everglades-area agricultural industry, disputed the study. A joint statement by the two largest sugar companies, U.S. Sugar Corp. and Florida Crystals Corp., plus the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative, called the study “voided by grossly flawed assumptions, resulting in hocus pocus economic conclusions.”

The industry contends the study undervalues or ignores the cost of new management practices implemented by farmers to reduce the amount of pollutants in water that runs off their fields.

The study deals with phosphorus pollution, the most environmentally destructive pollutant in the Everglades, an ingredient in fertilizers used in agriculture.

When phosphorus flows into estuaries, it causes algae blooms that kill fish and harm tourism. In the Everglades itself, it spurs growth of cattails, which displace the natural Everglades sawgrass and clog the slow-flowing waterways, destroying the habitat of fish and the wading birds that feed on them. It also disrupts the growth of the kinds of algae normally found at the base of the ecosystem’s food chain.

Foundation CEO Kirk Fordham acknowledged that new farming practices have reduced the pollutant runoff from Everglades Agricultural Area farms, but said those practices “are being implemented on a spotty basis, and there’s very little enforcement by the water management district.”

The study comes at a sensitive time, as Gov. Rick Scott is engaged in negotiations with the federal government over Everglades cleanup.

The state began working to clean up the Everglades in the 1980s as result of lawsuits, and has spent some $1.3 billion to construct a 45,000-acre network of swamps intended to allow pollutants to settle out of runoff water before it flows into the River of Grass, according to information provided by Foundation spokesman Brian Crowley. But federal courts have ruled in response to continuing litigation that the state isn’t moving quickly enough, and Florida faces the possibility of a mandate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fgor a $1.5 billion expansion of the network.

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