Nobody can go swimming on the Gold Coast of South Florida. All the beaches in Martin County are closed due to an invasion of dangerous blue-green algae. Unlike red tide, which is a natural phenomenon, the blue-green algae bloom is a man-made problem.
Where does it come from? Primarily, Big Sugar, which ironically is federally subsidized. Sugar cane fields proliferate in western Palm Beach County on the south side of Lake Okeechobee. The economy of towns such as Belle Glade, South Bay, Canal Point, Pohokee, and Clewiston are all about sugar. In fact, Clewiston, home of U.S. Sugar, is nicknamed Sugar Town.
Interestingly, subsidies for the sugar industry are opposed by diverse voices including environmentalists, who decry the polluting of Lake Okeechobee, as well as free-market conservatives, who for years have lambasted sugar subsidies, as well as limits on domestic production and caps on imports, as a boondoggle that jacks up sugar costs for consumers and protects Big Sugar.
Beyond conservative economic theory and environmentalism, there’s also the sweet tooth perspective. High sugar prices are driving candy makers out of business. The Hersey company opposed the recent subsidies for Big Sugar approved by Congress in June. The company notes that as many as 600,000 jobs in baking and related industries dependent on sugar are threatened by the high cost of sugar, while the sugar industry employs less than 25,000 people. “We believe leaving these subsidies in place causes more job risk to the U.S. economy than removing them,” said Jeff Beckman, a spokesman for the Hershey Co., based in Hershey, Pa.
On the environmental side: “Sugar needs to be a good neighbor, and the fact is the federal sugar program is directly responsible for taking a massive environmental toll in Florida,” said Cris Costello, an organizing manager for the Sierra Club.
Here’s what happens. Phosphorus runoff from chemical fertilizers pollute Lake Okeechobee, resulting in massive algae blooms, then water is released from the lake and flows into the St. Lucie River and from there into the ocean. In some areas, the water turns murky green, other areas it’s coffee-colored.
While Congress voted to continue subsidizing Big Sugar in June, Florida state government shares the blame. “I think it’s irresponsible to point the finger at the federal government,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. “The question of who let the all that pollution into Lake Okeechobee is not a federal responsibility, that’s a state responsibility. Florida allowed three million acres that drain into Lake Okeechobee to become overdrained and overdeveloped.”
While Governor Scott talks about the importance of preserving the environment, his actions show another side. Scott is running for the Senate this year, and U.S. Sugar is a major contributor to his campaign. His appointees at the water management district recently rejected a deal to buy U.S. Sugar land south of the lake for water storage. That could have eventually reduced the need for discharges to the ocean.
In 2017, the state Legislature passed a bill favored by Big Sugar that allowed polluters to continue discharging phosphorus as long as they complied with best management practices, such as not fertilizing when the weather forecast calls for heavy rain. I wonder how that’s working out, considering that the run off this year appears on track to exceed that of last year, which was four times above the approved standard. Meanwhile, the Florida Environmental Protection Agency on Aug. 2 reported that the blue-green algae in the St. Lucie River was ten times too toxic to touch. That’s because blue-green algae is actually a bacteria called cyanobacteria.
Synchronistically, we were in Clewiston to meet friends just a couple of days before the beaches were closed. (It’s a place we rarely go.) Lake Okeechobee is huge, but the dike along the south shore keeps the lake and the pollution out of sight as you drive along the shore road. But, as the beach closing reveal, you can’t keep the damage out of sight forever. Now people on the coast are feeling the effects of environmental decay. Meanwhile, the federal and state governments largely stands with the polluters, even subsidizing them as in the case of Big Sugar.