Sugar isn’t the only corrupt industry that can buy communities to silence complaints about its pollution. But it might be the only one that gets taxpayers to pick up the cost.

Martin County taxpayers are being pushed by Flint, Michigan-based US Sugar to join a long line of Floridians paying to clean up the company’s waste.

 Next week sugar-financed Martin County commissioner Doug Smith expects voters to tax themselves, supposedly for leaky septic systems that experts say aren’t causing toxic algae blooms. Commissioners aren’t mentioning that the tax and the project will help US Sugar avoid sharing responsibility for the blooms. Or telling voters exactly how they plan to spend taxpayers’ money, either.

It’s a proven winner from US Sugar’s playbook. Here’s how it works:

  1. First, deny that generations of industrial-scale pollution by the sugar industry have anything to do with massive algae blooms on Lake Okeechobee. Insist that they’re caused by something local, like septic tanks.

  2. Then, spend whatever it takes to buy local elections, and direct winners to publicly take the blame for toxic algae, faulting area homeowners with septic systems. 

  3. Next, have your politicians propose that homeowners pay for it by funding huge “cleanup” costs. Provide as little information as possible about what, exactly, is getting cleaned up.

  4. Last, use the money on projects that actually generate more pollution. Allow faster development and bigger septic systems, and then tell the world how increasing local sources are making the disaster worse.

  5. (Optional) Propose that taxpayers contribute even more money to clean up the mess made by all these new septic systems. If anyone asks about toxic algae, keep pointing out that homeowners already admitted to causing the problem. Make them pay.

This sounds funnier than it is, but US Sugar uses this approach all over. This isn’t a St. Lucie watershed issue, or a Ft. Myers issue, or an Everglades issue. It’s a systematic way to influence any local government, avoid regulation, and pass pollution cleanup costs onto taxpayers.

Click here for the expanded version of this article. The details of how this plan was put in place in Martin County will sound familiar to anyone who’s followed clean water politics in Florida.

The scheme has one Achilles Heel: Voters. Martin County Commissioner Ed Fielding joked in this week’s board meeting that opposition to the 1% tax finally united area democrats and republicans. He exposed the one weak spot in the scheme: If the out-of-town agenda overreaches, local voters might sniff it out.

Maybe so-called conservatives pushing a tax increase to benefit an out-of-state company smelled wrong to republicans? Maybe a community investment that had no intention of benefiting the community smelled wrong to everyone?

In any case the lessons of Martin County’s story apply everywhere. To a politically savvy and well-financed industry like sugar, it’s not especially difficult, costly, or time-consuming to quiet dissent and destroy local communities from within.

Here’s hoping Martin County voters refuse to let their community become another Flint.

Peter Girard

P.S. The sugar industry is spending millions to reverse this year’s historic clean water gains. If you can, please click here to make a donation to help us fight to keep what we’ve won.