No legislative body has greater control over the health of Florida’s environment than the Florida Legislature. As lawmakers pass the midpoint of their 60-day session in Tallahassee, we offer the following analysis of key bills and pressure points impacting the Greater Everglades.
It was a frightening and symbolic moment. Along Florida’s Gulf Coast on April 3, mobile phones rattled with a dire warning: Piney Point was in danger of imminent collapse.
So far the radioactive phosphogypsum stack at the former fertilizer plant in Manatee County has not given way. But that’s only because workers relieved pressure on the containment pond wall by pumping nearly 200 million gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay. The phosphorus and nitrogen in that water may harm aquatic life in the fragile estuary, and could fuel harmful algal blooms.
Once again, Florida’s iconic waters take it on the chin. And it didn’t have to be this way.
State regulators cut Piney Point’s corporate owners break after break. Officials could have shut down the plant years ago, but chose not to.
Now the Legislature must ride to the rescue. This has dramatically shifted the landscape of the 2021 session.
The Florida Senate budget now includes $3 million to begin cleanup at the site; ultimately, a full cleanup could cost upwards of $200 million — funding which could come from the federal American Rescue Plan.
That’s money that might have been spent on other key environmental initiatives — Everglades restoration, “Florida Forever” land acquisition or clean water efforts.
Piney Point is yet another example of how Florida’s regulatory impotence and deference to corporate interests harms our waters and creates a ripple effect, impeding other conservation efforts.
Unfortunately, little is being done this legislative session to change that. There’s still time time for the Legislature to shift gears – but with less than a month to go before the session adjourns, time is running out.
One of the most controversial road-building proposals in recent Florida history appears to be on the cusp of partial repeal.
Senate Bill 100, sponsored by Senate Transportation Chair Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart), scales back the M-CORES (Multi-use Corridors of Regional Economic Significance) legislation pushed through by former Senate President Bill Galvano in 2019. Harrell’s bill, passed by the Senate March 25, scuttles a proposed toll road from Collier County to Polk County. But it retains plans to extend the Florida Turnpike west from Wildwood to the Suncoast Parkway and to extend the Suncoast Parkway north to Jefferson County.
The bill also includes non-tolled alternatives for local traffic along U.S. 19 and would allow property owners impacted by the roads at least one access point for each mile of land owned.
Friends of the Everglades preferred a pair of bills (SB 1030 and HB 763) that would have eliminated M-CORES in its entirety, but both stalled in committee while SB 100, a priority of Senate President Wilton Simpson, sailed through.
Harrell’s bill was improved by the addition of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Randolph Bracey (D-Ocoee) requiring the state to consider task force reports that recommended protections for the environment, farmlands and minority communities.
What’s next? There’s currently no companion House bill, and SB 100 could be used as a “bargaining chip” as House leaders seek to push their priority legislation across the finish line.
Everglades oil drilling
A pair of bills in the Legislature — Senate Bill 722 and House Bill 333 — seek to ban oil drilling in the Everglades Protection Area, a legally defined area. This is a good idea, so far as it goes.
We’d like it even better if those restrictions were extended to Big Cypress National Preserve, right next door.
Big Cypress is currently at risk as the Burnett Oil Company is pushing to drill in the preserve. There are already two “legacy” oil drilling sites in the 729,000-acre preserve; Burnett has asked the U.S. Department of the Interior to ramp up drilling at one such site, and expand drilling to additional locations.
A coalition of 100 environmental groups and businesses, including Friends of the Everglades, is urging the U.S. Department of the Interior to deny the request.
Friends of the Everglades believes SB 722 and HB 333 should be amended to include protections for Big Cypress. As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ceded authority for wetlands permitting to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the state does have some say in this matter.
Rather than playing defense on a case-by-case basis, Florida would be better off writing new protections into law. Big Cypress National Preserve is a treasure of the Greater Everglades ecosystem and should be protected from drilling in perpetuity.
What’s next? Currently SB 722 is stalled in committee; HB 333 cleared the Civil Justice & Property Rights Committee March 30 and has one more stop, in State Affairs, before heading to the House floor. It could end up as an amendment grafted onto unrelated legislation if SB 722 makes no progress.
Water storage north of Lake Okeechobee
There’s no magic bullet when it comes to fixing Florida’s “plumbing” problems. But Senate Bill 2516 is being touted by supporters as the next best thing. Don’t let them fool you.
The bill, passed unanimously by the Senate April 7 as a conforming bill linked to the Senate budget proposal (SB 2500), would require the South Florida Water Management District to partner with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and expedite implementation of the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project (LOWRP), which is part of CERP (the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan). It includes water storage north of the lake in the form of aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) wells.
The proposal is a priority for Senate President Simpson, who’s decried the “disproportionate amount of time and funding” spent on water projects south instead of north of Lake Okeechobee.
But Friends of the Everglades remains wary. ASR wells are indeed part of CERP, but storing water north of the lake does nothing to move more water south into the Everglades and Florida Bay. And ASR wells will have limited capacity to be useful for flood control. They are largely a water supply feature, not Everglades restoration.
Worse, Gov. Ron DeSantis is proposing to use the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund to pay for the wells, and a budget bill in the Senate proposes to appropriate $50 million annually from the fund.
What’s next? The $95 billion Senate budget plan is considered the starting point for negotiations with the state House, which has proposed a $97 billion spending plan.
Right to farm expansion
When does the “right to farm” become the “right to harm”?
On March 30 the Florida House of Representatives’ Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee voted 14-4 to advance HB 1601, which ostensibly seeks to boost agri-tourism and protect farmers from newcomers who want to curtail farm operations. A companion bill in the Senate, SB 88, passed March 17.
Friends of the Everglades believes the effect of the bill will be to further disenfranchise the already disenfranchised, including those who live near sugarcane fields and suffer respiratory distress when the fields are burned to expedite the harvest.
The proposals curtail residents’ ability to sue, requiring they live within 1/2 mile of the farm in question to file a nuisance action. It also raises the burden of proof, limits damages and requires plaintiffs who lose in court to pay the winning side’s costs.
Beyond environmental justice, the bills could shield farming operations from legal action related to water quality.
This is not a partisan issue. It’s about the rights of Floridians to protect ourselves, and our ecosystems, from polluters.
Blue-green algae task force recommendations
After a disastrous 2018, when blue-green algae hammered Florida’s east coast while red tide slammed the Gulf, Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed a blue-green algae task force to try and prevent a repeat. Some of the group’s recommendations were implemented in 2020 as part of the “Clean Waterways Act,” but that legislation fell woefully short.
This session, two bills — SB 1522 and HB 1225 —– would remedy that. The bills would require the state to adopt key task force recommendations such as implementing stormwater system inspection and monitoring, requiring owners of onsite sewage treatment and disposal systems to have the system periodically inspected, require Basin Management Action Plans (BMAPs) to prioritize restoration projects that would have the biggest impact on water quality, and more.
Friends of the Everglades supports both bills.
What’s next? Senate bill 1522 cleared the Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Environment and General Government April 8 and is now in Appropriations. HB 1225 has been stuck in the Environment, Agriculture & Flooding Subcommittee since February.
Key West residents love their beautiful city, but so do tens of thousands of tourists who disembark from huge cruise ships every year.
So in an effort to minimize the number of big ships utilizing the municipal seaport, city residents last year backed a series of referendums that limit the number of passengers who come ashore to 1,500 daily, ban the largest ships outright and give docking priority to those with the best health and safety records.
The cruise line industry and related trade groups rebelled, and the Legislature responded with a pair of bills, SB 426 and HB 267, to overturn the referendum and prevent municipal-owned seaports from regulating or restricting ships on the basis of size, type of cargo or number and nationality of passengers.
Friends of the Everglades opposes these bills as yet another Legislative attack on home rule. That’s especially concerning because the massive cruise ships in the Key West’s shallow, narrow channel churn up the seafloor, causing turbidity and endangering the nearby “Great Florida Reef,” the only living barrier coral reef in North America.
What’s next? The bills are moving: both are in their final committee stop before heading to the floor for a vote.
Sometimes it seems the only thing “forever” about Florida’s signature land acquisition program is the fact it’s forever underfunded.
Since the inception of “Florida Forever” in 2001, the state has purchased just under 870,000 acres of environmentally sensitive land for $3.2 billion.
But the Great Recession resulted in drastic reductions to funding. Last year the program got $91.7 million, a significant increase over the $34.5 million in 2019. But in his proposed 2021-22 budget, Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to slash that to $50 million.
The Florida House budget proposal would provide $100 million in funding; but the Senate budget matches DeSantis’s $50 million figure.
Two legislative proposals filed Feb. 22, SB 1510 and HB 1211, would establish a Florida Forever funding “floor” of $100 million, requiring the Legislature to allot at least that much every year. The bills, unfortunately, are going nowhere.
Friends of the Everglades enthusiastically supports Florida Forever and believes state leaders are being irresponsible in underfunding what is widely considered one of the premier land conservation programs in the nation.
By shortchanging Florida Forever, we shortchange the state’s natural heritage both now – and, indeed, forever.
There’s no rest for environmental advocates when the Florida Legislature is in session. We will remain vigilant until the 60-day session wraps on April 30. To support our legislative watchdog work, consider making a donation today.