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Big Sugar Is Bitter Over The Everglades

Environment: AGRICULTURE


A Florida initiative targets the industry for a new cleanup fee

Environmentalists and sugar growers are waging a fierce battle in Florida over a proposal to levy a penny-a-pound fee on raw sugar to help fund the cleanup of the Everglades. Voters will decide on Nov. 5 whether to amend the state constitution to impose this controversial fee for 25 years, which could raise up to $1 billion in cleanup funds.

The $800 million Florida sugar industry is calling the fee a tax that could bankrupt manufacturers. Environmentalists, meanwhile, see it as the only enforceable way of ensuring a cleanup. The public remains divided: A recent independent Mason-Dixon Florida poll showed 49% in favor of the sugar fee, 40% against, and 11% undecided.

Environmental groups around the country are watching the fight carefully. The tax is unusual in several respects. For one thing, the question is on the ballot, instead of before the state legislature. Environmentalists say that's crucial, because sugar interests are strong enough to weaken any state legislation. The tax is also noteworthy in holding a single industry accountable for an entire ecosystem like the Everglades. If voters reject the fee, "the message will be that the biggest opponents to restoration have won," frets Ron Tipton, director of the South Florida/Everglades campaign at the World Wildlife Fund. He adds that a "no" vote could make it harder to lobby Washington for more funds for Everglades restoration.

The Everglades, a unique wetland that is home to endangered wildlife and crucial to South Florida's water system, is clearly at risk. High levels of phosphorous--derived from crop fertilizers--have led to plant overgrowth and wildlife declines. Sugar interests argue that vegetable and cattle farmers and homeowners are also to blame. "If [environmentalists] succeed, sugar farmers are going to be the scapegoats of the century," says Robert H. Buker Jr., senior vice-president at U.S. Sugar Corp., the state's largest sugar producer.

But some scientists, such as Ron Jones, director of the Southeast Environmental Research Program at Florida International University, charge that sugarcane growing is responsible for "virtually all" of the phosphorous pollution. Because sugarcane is grown on the headwaters of the Everglades, runoff from cane fields flows through the entire ecosystem with enormous consequences, says Jones.

Sugar growers counter that they already pay their fair share of the Everglades cleanup. A controversial 1994 state program, the Everglades Forever Act, assessed landowners within the agricultural area $24.89 per acre per year for cleanup programs. That law, which runs for 20 years, stemmed in part from a 1988 lawsuit filed by the federal government against the state for failing to enforce clean-water standards. Sugar growers say their $320 million share out of an estimated $700 million cleanup project is fair. And they point to new farming practices that have diminished the amount of phosphorous leaching into water.

QUOTA SYSTEM. But critics charge that taxpayers within the South Florida water region are shouldering the remaining costs. The critics also dispute the sugar industry's claim that the new fee would put them out of business, because the federal government's quota system still ensures a 4 cents margin per pound of sugar. U.S. Sugar Corp.'s Buker says production costs lower that margin.

The amendment does have one shortcoming: It doesn't designate a specific program to receive collected funds. Instead, a related ballot issue would establish a trust fund that could administer the money. Another ballot initiative--a fallback position--would require that polluters pay for cleanup in the Everglades Agriculture Area based on how much they now pollute. Buker supports that initiative: "I'm going to ask for money back," he says, alluding to recent successes in phosphorous reduction.

Complicating matters still further is another ballot proposal that would require two-thirds of voters in an election to approve any new taxes. Sugar interests say this would include the fee; environmentalists say it would not. That battle, and others stemming from the ballot initiatives, seem certain to wind up in court. The Everglades, meanwhile, remains an ecosystem at risk.By Gail DeGeorge in Miami

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