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.
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.
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.
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?
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.)
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.)
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.
Venting on social media by irate residents about red tide and blue-green algae has gotten so bad that law enforcement is on edge.
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.
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.
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What do you think?… Should the environment be a higher priority for Florida politicians?
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
This a fantastic industry that provides many jobs, financial gains for Palm Beach County and tremendous entertainment for observers, such as myself. However, it also comes with a huge environmental burden — hundreds of thousands of tons of nitrogen and phosphorus-laden wastes.
I have been studying phosphorus pollution from horse manure and bedding wastes for more than a decade, and can offer some simple math. The waters of South Florida need to have low levels of phosphorus for the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and our coastal waters to function properly. The target for the Everglades is 10 parts per billion (10 ppb = 10 micrograms per liter).
One point source that I sampled was a nursery that has a lot of horse waste … “
Louda, who was quoted often during last summer’s toxic algae crisis, has also been a bit of a lightning rod for critics of the sugar industry’s alleged role in helping cause the pollution in Lake Okeechobee that spilled into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee River estuaries.
But bringing Wellington’s high-minded equestrian community — during equestrian season — into the debate could be the last straw for some.
In fact, calling today’s Point of View op-ed “horse manure” may be the most appropos pun of all.