After its successful legislative session in Tallahassee, Big Sugar is deploying a novel attack in Washington against federal pollution rules settled through decades of federal litigation by environmentalists in a case once overseen by Judge William Hoeveler.
Once upon a time, the Florida’s governor (the late Lawton Chiles) capitulated to evidence that its non-existent enforcement against Big Sugar polluters caused the Everglades ecosystem to crash. Dexter Lehtinen, the US Attorney in Miami in the late 80’s, fought on behalf of the Everglades against Florida’s institutional managers: the state’s wealthiest and most powerful campaign contributors US Sugar and Florida Crystals, owned by the Fanjul billionaires.
Lehtinen won, and ever since the resulting federal state settlement agreement in the early 1990’s, Big Sugar has been looking for cracks and openings to increase its profits by reducing the impacts of regulation. Its ceaseless enterprise is fueled by hundreds of millions in profits extracted through favorable subsidies embedded in the federal Farm Bill, that ensures the cost of sugar paid by consumers is nearly twice the world market price.
Sugar is wildly profitable, and the industry carefully sprinkles a portion of its gains throughout the political universe; from county commission races, to the state legislature, Congress, and the executive branch.
Bit by bit, year by year, Big Sugar has pushed its case that the industry is self-regulating its pollution through toxic farm run-off, using various schemes (like mixing averages to dilute end of pipe phosphorous measurements) to assert its compliance.
In this session of the Florida legislature, Big Sugar succeeded in locking down further privileges in return for minimal concessions.
Now the industry’s attention turns to a case so old that William Hoeveler in no longer involved. Miami federal judge Federico Moreno has been supervising the state federal consent agreement for years. In February the Miami Herald reported:
A quarter century after the state promised to clean up polluted farm water fouling the Everglades in a historic federal court order, water managers say its time to end the judicial oversight.
In an email earlier this month, an attorney for the South Florida Water Management District asked the U.S. Department of Justice to agree to terminate a “consent order” struck to end a bitter legal battle over dirty water flowing off sugarcane fields and into Everglades National Park and the Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. The district, which has repeatedly pushed to end the judicial oversight, argues that with water in 90 percent of the Everglades now meeting targets and construction on schedule for clean-up projects, the order is no longer needed.
“This protracted litigation … stands today as an antiquated and inequitable vestige of a bygone era,” attorney James Nutt wrote in a draft motion he forwarded to DOJ attorneys Feb. 10. “It is the right time to acknowledge the State parties’ remarkable achievements.”
In fact, fixing the Everglades is so far from over that certainty has been pushed well into the late 2020’s. It will take more than a decade for any assurances to emerge that water quality standards can be met. Everglades scientists, meanwhile, are convinced that the state has not done enough to secure the future of dying River of Grass. That did not deter Florida legislators from pressing forward with a new bill, recently signed into law by Gov. Scott, largely written and approved by Big Sugar.
At the same time, the chaos of the most incompetent presidency in U.S. history has opened the way for Trump insiders — Gov. Rick Scott and State AG Pam Bondi — to wage the argument directly and behind closed doors with sympathetic principals (ie. US Attorney General Jeff Sessions and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt) that the federal government ought to get out of the business of environmental regulation in Florida’s Everglades.
In 2018 Scott will run for the US Senate seat held by Everglades friend, Bill Nelson. Big Sugar’s designated successor to Scott, Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam, is preparing to compete to be the next GOP candidate for governor of Florida. Bondi, who earned Trump’s support by closing her eyes to the Trump University scandal during the presidential campaign, is the logical person to helm Big Sugar’s effort to undo the federal consent decree protecting the Everglades.