By Carl Hiaasen, Tribune Content Agency
Touted as an environmental breakthrough, the water policy bill passed last week by the Florida Legislature is actually a major win for polluters and the politicians they own.
Enforcement of clean-water rules is basically being replaced by the honor system. Big Agriculture couldn’t be happier.
Same goes for House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, whose dream of one day becoming state agriculture commissioner is closer to reality. The Brevard Republican has been an obedient little soldier for the special interests that divert and exploit the state’s fresh water supplies.
Current Ag Commissioner Adam Putnam was the political shepherd for the user-friendly new law. It was written by lobbyists for mega-farming and land corporations, and rammed through the GOP-controlled Legislature.
The Senate passed it with nary a single dissenting vote, reluctant Democrats saying this year’s version was better than last year’s awful bill, which didn’t pass. Even some environmental groups went along with the rewrite, asserting that it was the best they could hope for.
Which is just sad.
David Guest, the longtime managing attorney for Earthjustice in Florida, warned that the damaging effects of the new water bill will “come back to haunt us all.” From now on, farms that send polluted runoff into Lake Okeechobee will only need a permit to restrict the quantity being discharged — not the amount of fertilizer crud in it.
The plan allows Big Ag operators to supervise their own waste releases, which is a fantasy come true for those who pollute, including the sugar barons.
Theoretically, farm companies would work on deadlines to minimize the amount of phosphorus and other harmful substances in their outflow using so-called “best management practices.”
But the guidelines are mostly voluntary, and devised by the agriculture lobby, so you can guess how rigorous they are. Not very.
Sympathetic legislators went even farther, inserting in the law a “cost-share” provision that directs water-management districts to use tax dollars to subside Big Ag’s anti-pollution efforts.
In other words, the public will be paying farm corporations to do something they should pay for themselves — clean up their mess.
Supporters of the final water bill say significant enforcement powers were added to the plan, but that’s mainly on paper. The reality will be different.
At the urging of environmentalists, language was put in allowing the state to inspect farmlands to make sure proper clean-up practices are being followed. However, the law conveniently doesn’t state how or when these inspections would be conducted, or what would constitute a violation.
It doesn’t even say what the fines and penalties would be. And, of course, no money is being appropriated for hiring extra inspectors at the hilariously misnamed Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
So, in truth, the new water bill has no real enforcement mechanism. Another cynical move by GOP lawmakers was placing the Department of Environmental Protection in charge of periodically reviewing the water management practices, to see if pollution is actually being reduced.
It’s no secret that Gov. Rick Scott has made a priority of castrating the DEP. Only a sucker would believe the agency will be re-staffed and re-empowered to take on the task of monitoring corporate polluters.
There’s no denying the water bill is ambitious and far-reaching, and Big Agriculture isn’t the only winner. Developers seeking to tap into rivers and waterways, particularly in Central Florida, should send thank you notes along with their campaign checks to Tallahassee.
A water plan with pollution rules set by the polluters is exactly what you’d expect from the same gang that betrayed the 4 million Floridians who voted for Amendment One.
Some Democrats and environmentalists say they’ll strive to toughen the weak phosphorus rules and expedite cleanup actions. That won’t happen without an epic shift in political power.
Meanwhile the crap being pumped from Lake Okeechobee and surrounding farms continues to imperil the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, the Indian River Lagoon, Gulf Coast beaches and, most critically, the Everglades.
Under the new rules, some farmers and landowners will honestly try to improve the water they flush into Florida’s wetlands and drinking supply. Others won’t, because it’s cheaper and easier to dump unfiltered waste.
If voluntary compliance really worked, we wouldn’t need any pollution laws. Corporations would care as much about clean, safe water as ordinary families do. Unfortunately, that’s not the real world. It’s just a fantasy promoted by industry lobbyists and bought politicians.
And now, in Florida, it’s going to be the law.
(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)
Photo: Welcome to Florida, land of pollutants. DonkeyHotey via Flickr