Everglades Cleanup Exposes Environmentalists

Don’t tell me that so-called “environmentalists” are “for” the environment. The ongoing controversy over the cleanup of the Florida Everglades is further evidence that eco-activists are more interested in uncontested political power and dominating business interests than in workable environmental protection.

The Florida Everglades (search) are experiencing an overgrowth of cattails that crowd out the sawgrass and reduce the habitat for wading birds, alligators and other indigenous species. The cattail growth is fueled in part by run-off from farms and cities that is overly rich in phosphorus, a nutrient essential for plant growth.

By the early 1990s, cattails were overtaking the Everglades at a rate of more than six acres per day.

Thanks to an $8 billion federal-state partnership started in 1994 and implemented by the South Florida Water Management District (search), the rate of cattail growth has been reduced to about two acres per day.

The SFWMD credits innovative “green” technology (search) for the success. The technology uses algae and microscopic organisms in “filter marshes” -- 40,000 acres of farmland bordering the northern Everglades -- to clean the phosphorus from the run-off before it flows into the Everglades.

Instead of being pleased, however, the “environmentalists” are foaming at the mouth.

A 1994 state law set a cleanup deadline of Dec. 31, 2006, for reducing phosphorus (search) levels in water flowing into the Everglades to 10 parts per billion (ppb) -- versus pre-cleanup phosphorus levels of as much as 200 parts per billion.

The 10 ppb standard was arbitrarily selected and perhaps overly stringent. Curtis J. Richardson, director of the Duke University Wetlands Center, told the trade publication Land Letter that 15 ppb might be sufficient for ecological recovery in the system. “[The 10 ppb level] is a political number. It's not backed by science,” said Richardson.

In any event, eco-friendly filtering marshes were to be constructed to reduce the flow of phosphorus. But no one knew for sure whether they would make the 10 ppb standard attainable.

In knee-jerk fashion, the “environmentalists” called the 1994 law a sell-out to the sugar industry and claimed it wouldn’t work. They favored their standard expensive, command-and-control crackdown on farming and business interests.

But the filter marshes and new farming techniques employed in a 505,000-acre Everglades agricultural area are working. The SFWMD hopes to have 90 percent of the Everglades with phosphorus levels from 10 ppb to 14 ppb by the 2006 deadline.

Because the 10 ppb standard will not be strictly met by the 2006 deadline, a new state law enacted earlier this year deferred the deadline to 2016. As a practical matter, the last 10 percent of an environmental cleanup operation often is the most challenging.

Though the cleanup is progressing amazingly well, the triviality of the deadline change sent the “environmentalists” into orbit, even to the point of engaging in harassment and intimidation.

The “environmentalists” first ran to biased U.S. District Judge William Hoeveler who denounced the deadline extension and moved to place the cleanup under judicial oversight.

Judge Hoeveler was removed from the case last week by another federal judge for telling the press that he doesn’t trust Gov. Jeb Bush, state lawmakers or the SFWMD.

SFWMD board member Mike Collins awoke one April morning to discover his photograph and home phone number plastered on a billboard along U.S. Route 1, one block from his home.

“Polluters love Mike. Save the Bay. Save the Glades. Stop Mike Collins. Call Mike Collins and tell him to stop protecting polluters,” blared the billboard.

The billboard was paid for by The Everglades Trust (search), an eco-activist group.

The ranting against the SFWMD and the sugar industry isn’t limited to local activist groups; it’s a national cause, including groups such as Earthjustice, the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund.

The head of Earthjustice has vowed that the growers “will not get out of this … they’re going to get a terrible black eye over this -- again.”

A black eye for what?

The Everglades’ phosphorus problem is being eliminated with environmentally benign technology that has obviated the need for chemical treatment plants in the Everglades’ environs and avoided burdensome costs on the local agriculture industry.

So what if the cleanup is not proceeding according to some arbitrarily rigid timeline and standard demanded by activists with dubious goals?

Is the cleanup about what’s best and achievable for the Everglades or how much political power the “environmentalists” can wield?

One thing’s for sure. The Everglades controversy is a great showcase for the eco-activists’ insincerity and unreasonableness.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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