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Big Sugar's sly cleanup plan is dirty pool

April 12, 1992

The Florida Sugar Cane League, not famous for its environmental conscience, suddenly has unveiled a plan to clean up the Everglades.

A late April Fool's joke? Nope. Big Sugar says it's serious.

The huge corporations that grow cane finally admit they shouldn't dump so much scummy fertilizer into South Florida's drinking-water supply.

To prove their deep concern for the public welfare, they've offered to reduce by 151 tons the amount of phosphorus being pumped off the farmlands into the Everglades. The only catch: Big Sugar, not the state, would be in charge of the anti-pollution efforts.

How considerate of the cane growers, not wishing to trouble government with the task of enforcing its own laws. Instead, we all should just relax and rely on the sugar barons to make the water clean and safe. That's about as likely as Lake Okeechobee freezing over.

Big Sugar's newfound commitment to the environment is explained in one word: fear. First, the U.S. attorney sued Florida for allowing the Everglades to be polluted. After a lengthy legal battle, both sides settled on a $400 million cleanup program that requires cane growers to pump dirty farm runoff into large nitration ponds.

Sugar companies say the plan will tie up valuable land and cost agriculture 20,000 jobs. Led by U.S. Sugar and Flo-Sun Inc., the industry has fought back with a hail of lawsuits. Big Sugar has steadfastly resisted all previous attempts to make it pay for its own putrid practices. A Greek chorus of expensive PR men and lobbyists have insisted the phosphorus in farm runoff is as harmless as rain.

That nonsense won't wash anymore, and Big Sugar knows it. By offering their own cleanup plan"an olive branch," in the words of one sugar executivethe industry is making a last-ditch effort to appear reasonable and to keep control of its own drainage pumps.

Says Joe Podgor, of Friends of the Everglades: "It's like a traffic cop has pulled you over, and now you're trying to sweet-talk your way out of it."

Fittingly, the latest stall tactic came in the same week that the Everglades was named one of the 10 most endangered rivers in North America. A national conservation group, American Rivers, blames agricultural pollution and urbanization as the major threats to the vast shallows that provide fresh water for about four million South Floridians.

Some respected conservation groups aren't wild about the state's plan or Big Sugar's self-serving alternative. Friends of the Everglades, for instance, favors a complete scientific remapping of South Florida's plumbing, combined with "hard-core enforcement" of existing pollution laws.

Profitable habits are hard to break, and the sugar industry has long enjoyed a sweet deal: cheap water, migrant labor, government-inflated price supportsand the Everglades as its backyard cesspool.

The arrangement is cemented each election year by generous contributions to pliant politicians. According to the Center for Public Integrity, 17 sugar PACS gave $2.6 million to congressional campaigns between 1985 and 1990. Money doesn't just talk, it shouts: Of 29 U.S. senators who got $15,000 or more from Big Sugar interests, 85 percent voted to keep the price subsidies.

It's no wonder that cane growers, coddled for years, were stunned by the federal lawsuit over pollution. And with little experience at (or need for) compromise, it's no wonder that Big Sugar's counteroffer is so weak.

Backs to the wall, cane growers miraculously discover a way to keep 151 tons of phosphorus out of the Everglades!

Incredible. When these guys aren't flushing fertilizer, they're shoveling it.

Glades need a hero before options dry up January 12, 1992 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Future of keys rests in the fate of Florida Bay February 21, 1993