Christie: Is Gov. Rick Scott to blame for the worsening red tide, toxic algae blooms?

Lifeguards at Riviera Beach beach wear covering over their faces. The life guards (did not want to give names) said that if asked they would advise people not to risk a beach visit. Many beaches remains open Sunday morning while others remained closed to to Red Tide warnings. (Melanie Bell / The Palm Beach Post)

For years now, coastal Palm Beach County residents has been able to watch the environmental disasters caused by toxic blue-green algae and red tide from afar.

We’ve watched our neighbors to the north in the Treasure Coast have their lives buffeted; our fellow county residents to the west in the Glades have their way of life threatened; and our fellow coastal residents in Southwest Florida shutter businesses.

RELATED: Beaches remain closed due to ‘airborne irritant’

But that was before this weekend. Before the red tide we’ve all been reading about elsewhere in the state was suspected of making the air so bad here that local health officials in Martin and Palm Beach counties were forced to shut down 27 miles of beaches.

Health officials, on Monday, were still trying to confirm that it is indeed red tide that forced beachgoers — especially those with respiratory issues — to stay away, and had many complaining about burning eyes.

Jill Desplain brings her daughter Quinn in from the surf. She is visiting from Kentucky and and was unaware of the red tide warnings. Riviera Beach beach remains open Sunday morning while other beaches are closed due to Red Tide warnings. (Melanie Bell / The Palm Beach Post)

Apropos that at the center of it all is Gov. Rick Scott and his dismal environmental record of budget cutting and lax regulation. But will county residents blame Scott for if the red tide disaster has indeed made it to our shores?

If it is red tide, this may be a game-changer for Scott — who prides himself among other things on shamelessly promoting our state’s all-important tourism industry. The embattled governor, who has already been taking hits for weeks in every coastal community he deigns to visit, usually sees Palm Beach County as a sanctuary for the Scott train. In fact, he was just here a couple weeks ago raising money in Palm Beach with former President George W. Bush.

RELATED: Editorial: Scott must answer for environmental malpractice

That was then. Today, drivers can see signs for “Red Tide Rick” hanging from Florida’s Turnpike overpasses in the county. And again, if health officials confirm that red tide is the cause of the current “airborne irritant” at our beaches, Scott may have to scratch another coastal haunt off of his U.S. Senate campaign tour for a while.

Take our poll here, and let us know what you think: Is Scott’s handling of the environment to blame for the worse-than-normal red tide and toxic blue-green algae blooms?

Christie: 2018 election: Florida’s environment don’t get no respect, no respect at all

Although Florida’s economy is heavily dependent on the environment, most political candidates are loathe to put, and keep those issues out front during a campaign.

The state’s environment could use a little more respect from political candidates this election season.

For the past several weeks, candidates have been trying to figure what issues are most important to voters. With some individual races as tight as they are, every hopeful running — be it for county commission or state senate — knows hitting on that one topic that resonates with voters can move the needle just enough to eke out a win. (Well, that and spending a lot of money on the campaign in the last couple weeks.)

RELATED: Post endorsements for the 2018 primary elections

But what are those hot-button voter issues?

Is it education? We do have a flashpoint issue in school security. There’s is also the much bigger issue of our K-12 public schools being in the bottom fifth in the nation. And Florida’s horrendous teacher pay has actually resulted in a shortage of about 4,000 teachers statewide to begin the 2018-19 school year.

Is it the economy? We do have this issue that, despite all the jobs created the last several years, too many residents complain they need two or three of them to make ends meet. That’s what happens when most of the jobs created are minimum wage. Meanwhile, the cost of housing is going through the roof in many places like, well, Palm Beach County.

Is it the environment? Or as I call it, “the Rodney Dangerfield of primary ballot issues.” Voters are witnessing a red tide causing massive fish kills, and manatee and turtle deaths up and down the Southwest Florida coast. They are watching the ongoing green goo affectionately known as “toxic blue-green algae” find its way into the backyard waterways of Treasure Coast residents. And of course, there’s that long-term, existential threat to our very way of life that everyone fears but few want to talk about: sea level rise. (That’s right, I said it.)

RELATED: The Environmental Issues Facing Florida This Election Season

In a survey released by the USA Today Network and Florida Atlantic University in June, voters said the environment was their No. 3 concern after economy and school safety, respectively. But unlike these first two, environmental issues cannot seem to get and/or maintain traction on the campaign trail.

How can that be, one might ask, when dead manatees are floating into marinas? How can that be when water is submerging roads and parks during King tides? And how can that be when several Martin County beaches — Jensen, Stuart, Bathtub and Hobe Sound  — are the latest to close as blue-green algae and red tide continue to spread throughout the state of Florida.

Venting on social media by irate residents about red tide and blue-green algae has gotten so bad that law enforcement is on edge.

A 250-pound Goliath grouper floats in the water in Sanibel, where red tide is killing millions of fish in Sanibel. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

And on August 13, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency over the ongoing toxic red tide bloom.

“The red tide, which grows offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, has drifted toward the coast and is being blamed for killing scores of animals, including manatees, turtles, and thousands of fish,” reported Palm Beach Post staff writer Kimberly Miller.

But around that same time, when he had the opportunity to confront Treasure Coast residents about the blue-green goo that’s ruining their fishing and boating, Scott elected to do the equivalent of a boating flyover — leaving residents and their questions hanging.

Algae in the Caloosahatchee River beside the W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam in Alva, Fla. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

The governor-turned-U.S. Senate candidate isn’t much different from his political brethren on this front; though most can seem to muster a bit more face-to-face compassion. Still, when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phillip Levine tried to ride his sea-level-rise street cred to the top of the ticket, it didn’t work that well. Sure, voters like that stuff. But who can focus on an environmental threat when another candidate is accusing you of being a supporter of President Donald Trump, and guns are blazing at high school football games?

As a result, the environment gets pushed to the back-burner in a state that built its image off of sunshine and beautiful beaches. The state’s three-legged economy — tourism, agriculture and real estate — is so dependent on the environment that every storm season holds the potential to lay waste to all three. Witness: Hurricane Irma.

But so short is our attention span in this era of breaking news that environmental issues, even when they are staring us in the face daily — again, I mention toxic red tide and green algae — can’t keep a politician’s attention. Today, for example, in the wake of a mass shooting at a gaming tournament on Sunday in Jacksonville, gun control is the topic du jour.

Sigh… maybe it will be different in the general election campaign.

Sign up for The Palm Beach Post FREE weekly Opinion newsletter: Text Opinion to 444999

What do you think?… Should the environment be a higher priority for Florida politicians?

Take our poll, and leave a comment.

Christie: Narcan worth considering in PBC schools, board chairman says

Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw says the country’s growing opioid crisis may force the school district to consider stocking the anti-overdose drug, Narcan, on school campuses. (Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post)

The tragic death last month of a Miami-Dade County fifth-grader after he somehow came in contact with the powerful drug, fentanyl, has many public school district officials concerned about the health and safety of students.

Count Palm Beach County School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw among them.

While careful not to outright condone stocking the life-saving, anti-overdose drug Narcan (a brand name for Naloxone) on Palm Beach County school campuses to counteract potential opioid overdose situations, Shaw says it is worth discussion when considering the school district’s responsibility to protect kids on those campuses.

I’d have to agree. The overdose deaths stemming from the county’s opioid epidemic, chronicled exhaustively over the past year by The Palm Beach Post, has yet to show any signs of abating. It’s no stretch to assume that this crisis would, at some point, spill over into our school campuses.

So, it would make sense then for school nurses — the front line of defense on health emergencies — to be prepared.

For Shaw, the question had first come to mind because the opioid overdoses reminded him of an incident he had dealt with many years ago as a local school principal.

“A girl had come to school with a couple of vials of blood for a sort of show-and-tell,” he recounted. “It turned out that her mom or sister was training to be a phlebotomist, and had drawn some of the girl’s blood. The girl asked to take the vials to school to show her friends, and the mom or sister said sure.

“That got me to thinking of all things that kids could be exposed to on a school campus,” he continued, “and how much the use of opioids is spreading; not just in our community, but everywhere it seems.”

And that got Shaw wondering whether school nurses were properly trained to handle a potential overdose situation; and then whether Narcan should be at their disposal.

RELATED: Editorial: New sober-house laws are good, but we need bigger plan

The 46-year veteran of Palm Beach County schools is obviously right to be concerned.

Because this plague is getting worse. Opioids, mainly fentanyl and heroin, have killed 2,664 people in Florida in the first six months of this year — an average of 14 people per day. At this rate, fatal overdoses will outpace last year’s count by 36 percent.

In Palm Beach County alone, overdoses spiked to 311 in the first five months of this year, 20 percent more than the first five months of 2016. And Palm Beach County’s 590 opioid overdose deaths in 2016 were an all-time high for the county and nearly twice as many as in 2015, according to a Palm Beach Post analysis of records from the medical examiner.

RELATED: Miami boy’s death shows powerful opioid’s chilling potential

And then there’s the tragic death of 10-year-old Alton Banks. Authorities believe that Alton, who lived in Miami’s drug-ridden Overtown neighborhood, died on June 23 after coming into contact with fentanyl — but they are still trying to pin down how.

Alton died after a visit to the pool in Overtown. He began vomiting after coming home and was found unconscious that evening. Preliminary toxicology tests show he had fentanyl in his system.

Miami-Dade County authorities believe that Alton Banks, 10, died by somehow coming into contact with the powerful drug, fentanyl.

“We don’t know where he got it. We don’t believe he got it at his home,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said last week. “It could be as simple as touching it. It could have been a towel at the pool.”

She added: “We just don’t know.”

The case has underscored how frighteningly prevalent fentanyl has become — and how potent it is. Exposure to just tiny amounts can be devastating.

Indeed, fentanyl is so powerful that some police departments have warned officers about even touching the drug. Last year, three police dogs in Broward County got sick after sniffing the drug during a federal raid, according to officials.

But where does the school district’s responsibility begin? “You’ve got the bus stop… the bus,” Shaw mused. “Then, of course, you have the campus.”

The answer, at first, may first appear simple, especially since everyone wants to protect schoolkids.

There are some, however, who worry that having Narcan on hand can also become a crutch and stop some people from taking personal responsibility. Those arguments echo those of past opponents of setting up needle exchanges and distributing condoms to stop the spread of AIDS, who argued that such moves were just encouraging drug use and sex.

RELATED: Akron, Ohio, schools to get anti-OD med Narcan, but not everybody agrees

Point taken. But it falls flat for Matthew Davis, a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and head of general pediatrics at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

“Health care workers in hospitals and first responders in communities have had naloxone on hand for decades, but there is no evidence that having naloxone as an antidote has encouraged Americans to try street drugs and abuse prescription opioids,” Davis wrote in an email to NBC News last week. “Similarly, we would not expect teens to abuse opioids because naloxone is available in their schools.”

Naloxone, he wrote, must be “part of comprehensive drug use prevention programs in schools and communities, to try to reduce drug use among teens.”

“Making naloxone available in junior high and high schools is smart public health policy, given what is known about teens’ misuse of prescription opioid medicines and teens’ use of heroin in the U.S. today,” he added.

Having naloxone on hand “is just like putting a defibrillator on the gym wall for a heart attack, or having injections of epinephrine available for someone who can’t breathe because of a severe allergic reaction,” he wrote. “They are tools made available to save lives.”

Margaret Cellucci of the National Association of Schools Nurses (NASN) echoed those sentiments.

“The school nurse is often the first health professional who responds to an emergency in the school setting,” NASN said in its position statement.

“When administered quickly and effectively, naloxone has the potential to immediately restore breathing to a victim experiencing an opioid overdose,” it said.

To be sure, with 187 school district campuses, the financial cost of taking on this responsibility could be a factor as well. The demand fueled by opioid overdoses has also pushed up the price of Narcan for cities and counties around the country.

Earlier this month, Martin County Commissioner Ed Fielding discussed the possibility of limiting the number of times Martin County Fire Rescue crews would use Narcan to revive a person who has overdosed on multiple occasions. Talking about the Fire Rescue budget, he said he’d gotten the idea from Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office representatives during their recent visit to Martin County to discuss the region’s opioid epidemic.

According to Fielding, Alan Johnson, assistant state attorney for Palm Beach County, told him “what we’ve had to come up with is, after so many, we do not administer Narcan again.”

But State Attorney’s Office spokesman Mike Edmondson said Fielding’s comments were not accurate and the agency has had no discussions about restricting the usage of Narcan.

McKinlay

Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who has been out front on the opioid epidemic, pushed back even harder.

“It’s the most horrific, disgusting proposal I have ever heard in my life,” she told the Post’s Julius Whigham. “It’s not our job to play God.”

Be that as it may, the issue of stocking Narcan is not likely to go away. Not for municipalities. Not for counties. And, as fall creeps ever closer, not for school districts.

Christie: Tough questions may signal tough re-election for Mast

Suzanne Reynolds of Jupiter plans to work to defeat Brian Mast in next election over his support of repealing and replacing Obamacare. (Photo/Bill DiPaolo)

Are U.S. Congressional District 18 voters having some buyer’s remorse when it comes to Rep. Brian Mast?

You can bet the Florida Democratic Party hopes so; especially after last month’s House vote for the controversial American Health Care Act — or Trumpcare

Mast, like other GOP House members (and some senators) around the country, has faced down some tough questioning from constituents at town halls the last few weeks. To the freshman congressman’s credit, he did not back down from his vote to essentially back President Donald J. Trump’s pledge to “repeal and replace” the troubled Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Before Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, met with constituents earlier this month, some protesters stood along PGA Boulevard to criticize his vote for a Republican health care bill. (George Bennett/The Palm Beach Post)

Take this exchange with a voter, according to the Post’s George Bennett earlier this month:

“I am ‘pre-existing’ along with my family,” one woman told Mast at Tuesday’s meeting. “If they pull the ACA and they pull the pre-existing, what are we going to do?”

Said Mast: “This bill has my support because I absolutely do not believe that it will be pulling coverage from people with pre-existing conditions.”

Many in the crowd groaned, but Mast continued, saying “This is the reality. It is in word, written in the law, that you cannot do this. You cannot pull it away from people.”

“If they pull my pre-existing, can I come to your office and ask for your help to get insurance?” the woman asked Mast.

“I hope you do so, ma’am,” Mast replied.

Mast, who in 2010 lost both legs after stepping on a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, also told an occasionally raucous town hall meeting  in April:

“There are positives and negatives” in the health law known as Obamacare, said Rep. Brian Mast, who noted he gets his health care from the Veterans Health Administration. “I’m not going to pretend this is the easiest thing to work through.”

Indeed. And Dems are relishing that Florida’s 18th Congressional District, which includes Stuart, Port St. Lucie and part of northern Palm Beach County, an opening despite Mast winning last fall with 53.6 percent of the vote.

Politico reports that retired Army Major Corinna Robinson is talking to state and national Democrats about getting in, and she confirmed her interest. She has run unsuccessfully for Congress once before, but in South Dakota. In 2014, Robinson challenged GOP Rep. Kristi Noem in a campaign that generated very little outside attention, and lost 67-33. Robinson relocated to Florida in January for what Politico describes as “via a Pentagon job and Brookings congressional fellowship to support the counter-terrorism program at Joint Special Operations University at U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa.” (On the other side of the state.) One enthusiastic unnamed Democratic strategist praised Robinson as a “fucking unicorn.”

Worth mentioning: Another military veteran Pam Keith, who took 15 percent of the vote in the 2016 Senate primary, recently formed an exploratory committee.

U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Palm City, smiles as he greets supporters during his successful campaign last fall. (Richard Graulich / The Palm Beach Post)

Not sure what other Dems are interested in challenging Mast. But a pushover, he won’t be.

Despite taking hits at three town hall this year, he hasn’t backed down from meeting with constituents (like some of his congressional brethren).

Also while those town halls have been noticeably packed with Democrats, party leaders shouldn’t forget that his district leans to the right.

In April, attendee Rhonda Giacomelli of Palm Beach Gardens said the gathering didn’t provide an accurate picture of Mast’s Palm Beach County-Treasure Coast district.

“They are passionate Democrats and I applaud their enthusiasm,” Giacomelli said of Mast’s critics, “but they don’t represent this district.”

Will Mast be able to hold on to his seat in 2018? Take our poll here.

Goodman: Scott gives welcome boost to reservoir plan south of Lake Okeechobee

Florida Gov. Rick Scott takes questions during a news conference on environmental issues at the state capitol Monday in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Joe Reedy)

Gov. Rick Scott has given a big boost to Senate President Joe Negron’s plan for a deep-water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.

The governor on Monday endorsed the Treasure Coast Republican’s revised proposal for a reservoir that would use state-owned land at first, rather than seek to take existing farmland. The aim is to reduce water discharges east and west of the lake — overflows that led last year to toxic, stinky algae blooms — as well as help restore the south-bound water flow of the Everglades.

Scott put his own stamp on the proposal. He wants the Legislature to add $200 million to the budget to help the federal government speed up its repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers currently expects to complete a $1.7 billion project to shore up the wall around Lake Okeechobee by 2025. Scott hopes to cut that date to 2022.

The Senate voted last week 36-3 to approve the water bill (SB 10). That sent it to the House, where its fate is uncertain.

The senator who has navigated the bill through the upper chamber, Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said Scott’s backing was “a huge step forward in bringing this in for a landing.”

Negron had originally sought 60,000 acres to build storage for 120 billion gallons of water south of the lake. But facing stiff opposition from sugar growers and residents of Glades communities concerned about the loss of agricultural jobs, Negron scaled back the project to about 30,000 acres, using land already owned by the state. That dropped the projected price to $1.5 billion from $2.4 billion, to be shared by the state and federal government. The Senate bill seeks $64 million for the reservoir, but the House opposes the Senate’s idea of issuing bonds in future years to help pay for the work.

The federal government hasn’t committed to its 50 percent match.

Scott said in prepared remarks:

I support storage south of the lake in the A2 Reservoir which utilizes state-owned land and does not take people’s private land. This is a big step toward protecting our pristine environment. This additional storage, in conjunction with our currently planned projects around the lake, will help reduce harmful discharges in South Florida.

The A2 is a remnant of past efforts to build a pair of south-of-lake reservoirs in the southwest corner of Palm Beach County. Taxpayers spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the early 2000s on the first of the massive water-storage projects, the A-1, before construction was called off in 2008 amid lawsuits and shifting political winds.

Negron, naturally, said he welcomed the governor’s support, but expressed some doubts about lending out state money to help repair the Lake Okeechobee dike, which he said “is unquestionably a federal responsibility.” What’s the guarantee the feds will pay us back?

Nonetheless, no one can argue that it’s a good thing to strengthen the dike as soon as possible.

Negron has done an adroit job so far of nudging many competing — and reluctant — parties together toward the goal of building the south reservoir, which the Post has argued is long overdue. By downsizing the plan and focusing on state-owned lands, he improved the project’s chances with Scott, who could no longer object that agricultural jobs would be jeopardized by the reservoir; we all know how much importance this governor places on jobs. And with Scott’s OK, now even growers seem to be on board.

That leaves matters up to the House, whose Speaker, Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, has repeatedly echoed sugar-industry talking points. Here’s hoping he takes the same posture as the governor.

Take our poll, and let us know what you think.

Christie: All Aboard Florida trying to keep Brightline’s future from dimming

Mike Reininger, Executive Director of Florida East Coast Industries (left) and Dennis Grady, President and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches (right) speak with the Post Editorial Board this morning. (Joseph Forzano / The Palm Beach Post)

UPDATE, March 28, 11:40 a.m. — This morning, the state House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee pulled HB 269 from its meeting agenda. The committee gave no explanation for the last-minute decision to not discuss the House companion to state Sen. Debbie Mayfield’s Senate bill proposing new regulations on high-speed passenger rail in the state of Florida.

Here’s a statement released from All Aboard Florida:

“The fact that the bill was pulled from the committee agenda today means the overwhelming input from groups such as the Florida Chamber and Florida TaxWatch, elected officials from key cities and newspaper editorial boards is making an impact.  We have been saying this bill is not about safety but an attack against private property rights and is targeting our company.  Legislators are comprehending these facts, and we are appreciative.” – Rusty Roberts, Vice President of Government Affairs for Brightline

RELATED: House committee postpones vote on high-speed rail bill

And here’s excerpts from the response released Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida (CARE FL) to this morning’s developments:

“I want to once again thank Representatives MaryLynn Magar and Erin Grall for filing legislation this session to protect citizens from subsidizing high speed rail projects that pose risks to public safety.  We are disappointed that the subcommittee did not debate the bill today, but we respect the legislative process, and look forward to more dialogue about this important legislation in due course.

“All Aboard Florida (AAF) is taking a victory lap today in its public statements, but its latest actions are nothing more than a special interest group flexing its political muscle in a desperate attempt to protect its profits which are reliant on taxpayer subsidies. 

***

All Aboard Florida is up against it these days.

Right… So what else is new? The proposed high-speed passenger rail line that’s expected to have 32 trains running between Miami and West Palm Beach daily later this year has been fighting opponents since it was first announced four years ago.

And it’s mostly those folks north of West Palm Beach — in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties — that have declared war on the proposed Brightline service. They have mounted a well-funded group to fight it — Citizens Against Rail Expansion in Florida (C.A.R.E.), based in the Treasure Coast.

But AAF officials met with the Post Editorial Board today because of a new, and potentially bigger threat — a bill proposed recently by Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Vero Beach Republican.

A bill that, if passed, could halt the much-ballyhooed Brightline in its tracks.

Listen to audio of the meeting here:

The proposal (SB 386) would place regulations on passenger rail service. It was passed out of the Senate Transportation Committee — and sent All Aboard Florida into a tizzy, warning that the bill’s ostensible concern for safety could actually derail plans to link Orlando and Miami.

“The goal here is to mask this whole proposal in safety,” Mike Reininger, Florida East Coast Industries executive director, told the board. “Right?… Who doesn’t like puppies and bunnies?

“But that’s not what this bill is,” he added. “This is bill is simply another attempt to stop All Aboard Florida, specifically, and kill further passenger rail expansion, generally.”

Reininger, joined by Brightline general counsel Myles L. Tobin and Chamber of Commerce of the Palm Beaches President Dennis Grady, added that passing the bill would certainly result in years of legal and administrative challenges. Not to mention having an impact on FEC’s schedule to begin offering service north of West Palm Beach.

(By the way, Reininger let it be known that All Aboard plans to propose opening a train station north of West Palm Beach “everywhere we believe is financial viable”.)

But Mayfield, at the March 14 Senate hearing, contended the proposal doesn’t target any particular rail service.

“This is about setting a framework so other high-speed rail companies that come in, we have that framework set into place,” said Mayfield of the measure, which would give the Florida Department of Transportation oversight where not preempted by federal law.

The measure also would require private passenger rail to cover the costs of installing and maintaining safety technology at crossings unless such contracts are agreed to by local governments.

“It’s not fair, and it’s certainly not legal,” Reininger said today. “We’ve already exceeded federal regulatory requirements in terms of upgrades to our tracks and crossings. So why do we need another law?”

A good question. Take our poll and tell us what you think: