Florida sugar growers sue to stop regulation under Clean Water Act
By PAUL QUINLAN
Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Two of the nation's largest sugar growers, Florida Crystals Corp. and U.S. Sugar Corp., are fighting a new push from the federal government to regulate them under the Clean Water Act.
The companies, which own 342,000 acres of land that was once part of the Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee, have filed federal suits that say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suddenly and improperly began requiring wetland destruction permits to converted their lands to non-agricultural use.
The requirement would allow the Corps to either block new plans or force the companies to pay for "mitigation," the preservation of wetlands elsewhere in proportion to those being destroyed .It's a sign that federal officials have taken new interest in the future of the farming region, whose lands are seen as critical to Everglades restoration. At the same time, so have rock mining companies and other industries feared to be counterproductive to environmental goals.
In the suits, Crystals argues that the requirement has impeded plans to create a 100-acre ash dump for its cane-burning power plant. The company now trucks the soot 60 miles away. U.S. Sugar complains of the delay in commencement of rock mining by Stuart Mining Industries, which is leasing land from U.S. Sugar and could be paying rent and royalties if work had started.
The lawsuits have profound implications for Florida's 700,000-acre Everglades Agricultural Area, land south of Lake Okeechobee that was flowing Everglades marsh before the government drained it half a century ago to create fertile farmland.
Crystals and U.S. Sugar argue that the implications extend far beyond South Florida's cane fields to the 53 million acres of U.S. farmland that was once wetlands. They call it a major policy shift that deserved public notice and comment.
"We have legislation here that's been promulgated by bureaucrats," said Dan Riesel, who represents Crystals. "They've done it in a way that is sort of clandestine."
Environmentalists counter that the move merely represents an interpretation of existing law. They say the wetland permit is necessary because the Everglades Agricultural Area, unlike other converted wetlands, requires the use of pumps, locks, levees and drainage canals to keep dry. Without active drainage, the land would revert to wetlands, the Corps argues in a 2009 memo cited by the U.S. Sugar suit.
"They're farming a riverbed that is pumped actively to remove the water from the land," said Eric Draper, lobbyist for Audubon of Florida.
The companies disagree and cite a 1993 Corps ruling that said farmland legally converted from wetlands in prior decades would not be subject to Clean Water Act requirements.
"It doesn't mean they can't have a mine and that they can't have a landfill," said Draper. "The real issue here is that there's going to be more mitigation. They don't want to have to mitigate."
In the suits, Crystals says the cost to offset destruction of one acre of wetlands in the region runs about $90,000. U.S. Sugar says the permits can cost, on average, $272,000 and take more than two years to obtain.
Corps and Department of Justice officials declined comment, citing the ongoing litigation