Shady side of the Sunshine State


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.

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14 Responses to Shady side of the Sunshine State

  1. Jane Clifford says:

    Meanwhile here in Wales UK they justbstrated dumping toxic nuclear waste in the sea near the capital city of Wales, Cardiff! They dump it at night!
    This is where the worship of money gets us

  2. Shadow says:

    Pollution of this nature happens everywhere, and it will always be a tug between economics and conservation. I’d be horrified if the river running through ‘my’ town looked like that, and equally horrified if the industry closed down and unemployment is the result… surely there must be another way???

  3. CJ says:

    To be absolutely truthful without going into details, I have to stand with BH on certain of his observations. Leaving that subject, our family lives on the beach on a Florida island, have lived here since 1981, and the changes are heartbreaking. One of the changes that hurts me most is that our natural environment: trees, forests, etc, are being completely destroyed and new houses and condos and malls are replacing them, which means the creatures whose homes are indigenous in these forests are homeless and many are dying. Think about this: deer, rabbits, foxes, wild boar, opossums, raccoons, squirrels, skunks (yes, them too), local small black bears,bobcats, on and on and on. And our oceans…..polluted by ships dumping oil, gasoline, human waste and things I don’t want to even address, such as folks getting seasick….all this….and is it any wonder our planet is more or less dying. For me personally, such increasing carnage is much, much important to our lives and its existence than politics. I won’t apologize for this because it reflects my true state of mind as a Green person and an animal activist. We each have our own priorities, and these are mine. Politics will ALWAYS be a matter of individual preference. Always. But of lesser urgency to me than our killing our planet.

  4. bh says:

    Hey, something we can agree on – I’m one of those free-market conservatives you mentioned (more of a libertarian, actually, but we land on the same side when it comes to any kind of government subsidies). The government should get the heck out of the way and let the market work the way it should.

    I don’t know the specifics down there, but more than subsidies, it sounds like you have an environmental regulation problem, and maybe a development/land use problem, but that kind of stuff is usually the responsibility of the local (county/township/city) governments more than federal or state level.

    • Trish and Rob says:

      What we’re starting to experience in Florida is the impact of climate change. Last summer’s hurricanes set all kinds of records. I’ve been here off and on since 1963 and it’s getting hotter and hotter, with fewer months when we can turn off the air conditioning and open the windows. Parts of Miami Beach flood at high tide. And on and on. Florida has been overbuilt, for sure, and the mangroves that provided a buffer are pretty much gone. As Vonnegut used to say, So it goes. Time to move farther north!

    • Trish and Rob says:

      If you are a free market advocate, then you can’t be too happy with Trump’s tariffs. Proponents of the concept of free market contrast it with a regulated market, in which a government intervenes in supply and demand through various methods – such as tariffs – used to restrict trade and to protect the local economy.

      • bh says:

        I am not a fan of tariffs in general. However, as a means to an end I see where he’s going with them. He is using them as a tool, as leverage to negotiate better deals, with the end goal of eliminating tariffs on both sides. You have to remember that other countries place tariffs on our exports too, this is not just Trump acting unilaterally. Canada, for example, for years has placed a nearly 300% tariff on milk coming from the US, in order to prop up its own dairy industry. They had to do that if they wanted to continue to have a dairy industry, because the US can produce milk much more cheaply than they can (we have more grazing land, shorter winters, more and better cows, etc). But by propping up their own dairy industry, their citizens have to pay much more for milk, instead of importing it cheaply from the US.

        The end goal of Trump’s tariffs is to pressure Canada (and others – China especially) into reducing or eliminating their tariffs and trade restrictions, so the free market can operate the way free markets are supposed to operate. Using the Canada/milk example again, if the US can produce milk cheaper than Canada, then Canadians would be better off importing their milk from the US (without tariffs), and it would cost them much less. Likewise, Canada can produce lumber more cheaply than the US (lots of timber trees up there), so we should be importing our lumber from Canada, without tariffs. It’s a win-win, once both sides drop their tariffs. That is the end goal, and those are the kinds of deals Trump is negotiating. Again, you don’t have to like him, but you have to admit he knows a thing or two about negotiating and deal making.

        So you are correct – I don’t like tariffs. But I understand Trump’s use of them as a means to force our trading partners to play fair, and it’s a long game. No one expected this to work overnight.

        • Trish and Rob says:

          And the Mexicans will pay for the wall, too.

          How does this fit into your conservative economic philosophy?

        • Trish and Rob says:

          What deals are you talking about? Trump actually has been a deal-breaker, not a deal-maker. He killed the Iran deal, the Paris Climate accord, and now his own so-called deal with North Korea. He tried to make a deal on immigration and failed. He tried to make a deal on health care and failed. And he did so while controlling all branches of the government.

          • bh says:

            You have to get out of the old deals before you can make new, better ones.

            The Paris Climate Accord was an international treaty not authorized by Congress. The President explained repeatedly that his predecessor did not have the authority to enter into that agreement, and that he was sending it back to Congress to evaluate it formally, as the Constitution requires, and then send it back for him to sign. They did not do that. Of course, the media reported it as “TRUMP DOESN’T CARE ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT!!” but that’s not at all what it was about. Rachel Maddow and Joe Scarborough won’t tell you that, which is why you need to find better and more diverse sources of information.

            Same with the Iran nuclear deal. All international treaties must be approved by congress. Because The Constitution says so. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s a big document, hand-written on parchment 230-odd years ago. There are copies available on the internet if you’re not familiar with it. Again, you are forgiven for not understanding this if Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann are your primary sources of information. Read more.

            Congress, not the President, failed to reach a deal on healthcare. The President’s job is to lay out his priorities. Congress has the responsibility of implementing them. They failed. I suspect a few of them will find themselves unemployed come November because of it.

            Congress also failed to reach a deal on immigration. The Republicans offered full amnesty and a path to citizenship for almost 2 million illegal immigrants, which is far more than the 800,000 or so in the DACA program. The Democrats refused. Why? Because they don’t want a solution – they need this “issue” to continue to exist, so they have something to run on. Don’t believe me? Ask your representative in congress why they voted against that deal. I’d be really curious to hear their answer. No one in the media will ask them, so we have to do it ourselves. Please report back here when you get an answer from your representative (mine voted for it, so I can’t help).

            Trade deals are in progress. Mexico made concessions and came to a (tentative) agreement. Canada is at the table now. Deals are in the works with our trading partners in Europe and Asia. China is holding out, but they are feeling the pain and will have no choice but to come to the negotiating table eventually. Did the President snap his fingers and make everyone bow to his wishes immediately? No, of course not. These things take time. Negotiations are ongoing, deals are being worked out. I don’t understand why anyone opposes trade deals that are better for our country.

            As for North Korea, Kim broke the deal, not President Trump. I give him credit just for getting Kim to the table at all, which is far more than any other president has been able to do in over 60 years. Kim knows what he needs to do if he wants to be a part of the global community and prosper from it. He’ll be back once he realizes it’s the only way (and once China stops funneling money to him under the table, but that’s a whole separate issue).

  5. Lori says:

    This makes me so sad. What is happening to Florida? My Tampa Bay family has been going on this family vacation near Englewood for 23 years. It’s like a 2 week family reunion and they have a big family. I was supposed to go this year but couldn’t. The videos that my Aunt and cousins sent me made me cry. There are always turtle nests there and they get to watch at least 2 every year. This year not just endless dead fish but dead dolphins and manatees scattered the beach from the red tide. They had to wear masks and couldn’t go in the water. They left early because it was just getting worse and the baby turtles had tried to make it but all ended up dead. Then they sent me the news and articles about what was happening on “my old” side of FL. No boats in Lake Okeechobee, just a sea of green and the path it was headed. It’s all just sad. My Rob wondered about drinking water. Did we ever get water from the lake for anything in Wellington?