Threatened Florida Everglades Need U.S. EPA to Police Cleanup, Judge Rules
The state of Florida and the South Florida Water Management District “have not been true stewards of protecting the Everglades in recent years,” U.S. District Judge Alan S. Gold in Miami wrote in yesterday’s ruling.
“It is now, and has been for a while, time to take concrete and substantial progress toward preserving the Everglades before this national treasure is permanently destroyed to the extent of irreparable destruction,” Gold said.
The Everglades is a 100-mile-long (161 kilometer) sheet of shallow fresh water flowing south from Lake Okeechobee in Florida’s center through marshlands and then into the ocean at the state’s southern tip. Once covering 11,000 square miles, its area was reduced by half through drainage begun early last century to reclaim land for farming and real-estate development.
The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, whose members are the only residents of the Everglades, sued the U.S. and the EPA in June 2004. The tribe is seeking to force the government to review and disapprove an amended version of the Everglades Forever Act, a law passed by the Florida Legislature in 1994 to resolve litigation over a plan to clean up the wetlands, according to Gold’s ruling.
The cleanup plan required the state to take actions to reduce concentrations of phosphorous in the Everglades. It was developed as part of a 1992 agreement to settle a lawsuit brought by the U.S. against Florida in 1988 for failure to enforce water-quality standards, Gold said in his ruling.
“The primary purpose of this latest order is to put into the hands of the EPA all the resources necessary to enforce its action plan and to implement its full power under the congressional Clean Water Act,” Gold wrote.
New Hope Sugar Co. and Okeelanta Corp. had joined the case. Those companies, together with their affiliates, own and farm about 190,000 acres next to the Everglades Protection Area, according to the ruling.
Gaston Cantens, a spokesman for Florida Crystals Corp., which owns New Hope Sugar and Okeelanta, didn’t return a call seeking comment.
The Florida Environmental Protection Department was disappointed by the ruling giving the U.S. EPA “permitting authority, essentially federalizing Florida’s Everglades restoration permitting process,” said Jennifer Diaz, a spokeswoman for the agency, in an e-mailed statement.
The Florida agency is “vigorously pursuing” its appeal in the case, Diaz said.
Amy Graham, a spokeswoman for Florida Governor Rick Scott, said in an e-mailed statement that he is “disappointed in the ruling by Judge Gold which shifts Everglades restoration permitting authority from the state to the federal government bureaucracy.”
The EPA is reviewing the decision and had no immediate comment, said Betsaida Alcantara, a Washington-based spokeswoman for the agency.
Friends of the Everglades “agrees with Judge Gold’s frustration with decades of broken promises by the state to end flagrant pollution of the Everglades by big sugar,” the group, a plaintiff in the case with the Miccosukee tribe, said in an e-mailed statement.
‘Decades’ of Costs
“Florida political officials, including Governor Rick Scott, appear blinded to the fact that the state itself is substantially to blame for the decades of accumulated costs, for failure to require the polluter to pay,” the conservation group said. “EPA, rejuvenated under President Obama, can step in decisively.”
Joe Collins, chairman of the South Florida Water Management District, which is responsible for part of the Everglades cleanup effort, said his staff is reviewing the ruling and he hasn’t had a chance to look it over.
“I really don’t have a sense of what it means yet,” he said.
The habitats of Everglades birds, reptiles and plant life have been altered by a network of drainage canals that interrupt the natural water flow and from fertilizer runoff from agriculture. The mix of salt and fresh water where the Everglades meets the sea provides the world’s sole habitat where alligators and crocodiles exist together.
Former Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican, announced a plan in 2008 for the state to buy 187,000 acres of Everglades farmland from U.S. Sugar Corp. for $1.75 billion.
Concern for the cost and legal challenges to a proposal to borrow as much as $2 billion forced the plan to be reduced to a $1.34 billion purchase of 180,000 acres in November 2009 and to 73,000 acres for $536 million in April 2010.
“It is a vital resource of water for one in three Floridians and crucial to Florida’s economy,” Kirk Fordham, chief executive officer of the Everglades Foundation, said in an e-mailed statement. “We regret that such a message had to come from a federal judge.”
The case is Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida v. U.S., 04-21448, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida (Miami).
To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Dolmetsch in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at email@example.com
Bloomberg moderates all comments. Comments that are abusive or off-topic will not be posted to the site. Excessively long comments may be moderated as well. Bloomberg cannot facilitate requests to remove comments or explain individual moderation decisions.