In the Everglades, Taxpayers Foot the Bill for Industry’s Mess

Florida's Everglades National ParkFlickr user: http2007/Flikr

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The fragile wetlands of the Everglades have long been choked by pollution, especially phosphorus from fertilizers used in industrial agriculture. Sugar cane in particular makes up the largest share of the crop land that drains directly into the national park. But a new study shows that despite the fact that the preponderance of gunk feeding into the Everglades comes from agriculture, it is the taxpayers, not the industry, who fork over for clean up.

The study, which was commissioned by the Everglades Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to protect the complex ecosystem, finds that although the agricultural industry is responsible for 76 percent of phosphorus contamination in the Everglades (the rest being urban runoff and wastewater), it pays only 24 percent of the cost of dealing with it. Even though Florida’s “polluter pays” amendment requires those who sully the wetlands to be “primarily responsible” for its cleanup, legislators have declined to enforce the law, sticking taxpayers with 66 percent of the bill.

Why this state of affairs? “It’s a little secret that the sugar industry is one of the most generous political donors on every level of government,” says Kirk Fordham, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. The US Sugar Corporation spent $907,000 to lobby the Florida legislature in 2011 alone, and its rival Florida Crystals wasn’t far behind, doling out $570,000.

The sugar daddies quickly issued a statement calling the study “hocus pocus.” Gov. Scott’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Last year the governor cut funds for Everglades water clean up, and the Sunshine State has been fighting a legal battle with the feds for years over its responsibility to pay for pollution abatement in federally-managed areas of the Glades. Gov. Scott is currently in negotiations with the Obama administration to draft a new version of a decade-old state and federal restoration project

Could the study shift the balance of payments? Fordham thinks so. “Rick Scott ran on a platform of protecting the taxpayer, and there would be no better way to follow through on that commitment than to demand that polluters pay more than taxpayers.”

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