COMMENTARY: How Politics is Killing Florida’s Environment

On a Clean Water Facebook page during the current water crisis in Florida in which 267 TONS of species of fish and wildlife washed up dead on South Florida beaches, someone asked, “Why is Florida this way?”. A critical question.

To help you understand my background on this issue, I became an environmental organizer after our mother moved us from Florida to NY, near Love Canal. My sister and I traveled back and forth from NY to FL for years to visit our father who taught us a love of boating and swimming in the Florida waters. But in NY after seeing the devastation to the community in Niagara Falls from toxic waste contamination I felt I had to get involved.  I communicated from the age of 15 with elected officials from all parties on environmental issues in NY and worked on various campaigns to raise awareness, including the ozone campaign, recycling and toxic pollution. I served as a UN delegate to the Environmental Youth Forum and even received an award from the NY State AG office for advocacy.

At that time when I was doing that work in the 90’s, there were many moderate republican’s in public office. In fact, I even interned with a moderate representative who had incredibly strong advocacy record on water issues as well as an environmental science degree. He had a 100% rating with the League of Conservation Voters, which produces a yearly scorecard available on their website that shows how elected officials vote on environmental and water issues. But things change.

When I moved back to Florida, I noticed right away that the water quality had gone drastically downhill. Lake Okeechobee (known to Floridians as “Lake O”) had become heavily polluted from discharges by the sugar, agricultural, and phosphate mining industries.  When the Lake O’ waters got too high, the Army Corps was forced to release the water to prevent the dike from bursting.  When these discharges happened the water in our canal off the Caloosahatchee river went from clear to black,  a problem I never witnessed before when I lived in Southwest Florida years earlier in the 70s-90s.  Sanibel’s once blue clear waters were no longer full of life, our canal that once had hundreds of crabs, had only one left near our dock.  We began to talk with friends who witnessed FWC officers taking dead manatees and dolphins out of the river near Fort Myers following Lake O’s polluted releases.

Many people don’t know that in 2015 Governor Scott and his AG Pam Bondi sued the EPA because they did not want the Federal Government forcing Florida to follow the Clean Water Act.***

Because of what I was witnessing, I got back into organizing and started doing research again. I analyzed the voting records of people, I researched where people received campaign donations from, I was reading tons of journal and news articles on the water issues. I spoke with scientists, hosted a public forum on Clean Water featuring two speakers with the environmental group I belonged to as a sponsor. I spoke with thousands of voters about water issues in three counties. I attended many candidate forums in South West Florida these past years and when I did I was horrified at what I was hearing.  I heard many republican candidates mock environmental issues, like climate change, Florida’s environmental legislation Amendment 1, they objected to protecting endangered species like the small toothed sawfish and doing so at Chamber of Commerce events.

Listening in the back of the room at one Chamber of Commerce Candidate Forum, I thought to myself, do they realize that if these individuals are elected, our waters will become more polluted and their business may fail, because the Florida economy is completely dependent on the health of our environment. I felt the republican party had completely changed from the party I once knew. But voters I spoke with moving to Florida from other areas of the country believed it to still be the party of their past. An investigative article later revealed both Chambers of Commerce in Florida and Republican candidates were receiving Big Sugar Money, while their lobbyists actively worked to destroy clean water protections*

Then in August of 2018, 267 TONS of marine species including dolphins, manatees, fish, turtles and a whale shark washed up dead on South Florida beaches. Local citizens were horrified and outraged. A clean water facebook page I was once an administrator on went from a membership of 20,000 people to 60,000 concerned citizens. More rallies were held and people were demanding answers. However, some continued to express that they will vote the same as they have in the past.

Seeing the once clear blue waters of my childhood become rivers of death and hearing the despair of our fishing families who could no longer support themselves-their entire livelihood wiped out was heartbreaking. The new fish restaurant that was supposed to open in town will not be able to safely serve any local fish. We used to see ducks, hear mullet jumping and see an occasional dolphin or river otter swim by, now the canal behind our home off the Caloosahatchee river is eerily silent.

Despite the destruction some citizens however, expressed they may continue to vote for the same party. This deeply concerns me for several reasons.

I believe Ray Judah was our last moderate environmentally minded republican in public office in Florida. He was the final Republican standing up to the sugar industry’s pollution.** Judah is strongly pro-environment and because of that Big Sugar took out twisted and manipulative attack ads to make sure he was not re-elected.

Ray has since gone on to do amazing water advocacy work with many other dedicated people and perhaps in the future he may run for public office again, but my point is, if we want to know why Florida is this way and why our waters are in crisis it comes down to political will. We cannot expect change from persons who associate themselves with a political party that forbids scientists in Florida to use the phrase, “Climate Change”. You have to believe in using science in the first place to prevent water pollution. And if another Ray Judah attempts to rise up in the republican party, they won’t have the support within that party to get elected with the current GOP climate and Big Sugar’s influence.

We must value the waters and our environment more than a party letter. And right now if you look at the League of Conservation Voters scorecards**** you will see a pattern of who is voting consistently for the waters and according to the voter scorecard’s I’ve researched, it’s not Republicans. Then think about who is in the Governor’s seat right now,  where are they and other members of their party getting their donations……..?

Biologist Annisa Karim is running for a State seat in what is considered a “Red” republican district in Florida. Her knowledge and skills to solve this problem cannot be topped by any opponent, but I worry, will Republican voters in Naples choose water or party? Her opponent accepted donations from polluter Big Sugar-a company which actively worked to undermine water protections throughout Florida*(see both investigative articles below).  Karim’s race is the “indicator species” of our water and Florida politics. If she survives and wins this race, we can hope for change and save our waters. In addition both  Republican Congressional Representatives currently in office in Southwest Florida have “F” ratings on their environmental scorecards according to the League of Conservation Voters.****

Each of us has a responsibility when we go in that voting booth and our community is depending on us to fix this. We are all the solution. We must let politicians know that we will look at how they vote, we must hold candidate forums, we must scrutinize what legislation they have sponsored, or neglected to sponsor. If we want to save our waters we as voters must hold them accountable and we must make sure they EARN our votes.

And we must make sure the waters are more important than any letter.

**** scorecard.lcv.org  is a non partisan organization that produces a scorecard for every federally elected representative showing voters how their representatives vote on environmental legislation. The League will also tell voters what environmental legislation their representative has sponsored or not sponsored.  Click the link to view.

***protectingyourpocket.blog.palmbeachpost.com/… This article tells how the State of Florida under Governor Scott, Adam Putnam and Pam Bondi sued the EPA in 2015 to avoid having to follow the Clean Water Act.

** http://archive.naplesnews.com/…/commissioner-judah-says-un…/ This article describes how polluter Big Sugar financed attack ads against environmentalist Ray Judah so he would not be re-elected.

https://www.miamiherald.com/…/state-p…/article139248918.html This article describes how polluter Big Sugar “greased the wheels” with unseen/in the dark money giving money to certain candidates and Chambers of Commerce in Florida.

https://www.tcpalm.com/…/u-s-sugar-lobbyist-infl…/464671001/ This article is an investigative piece that describes how US Sugar lobbyists actively worked to undermine water protections in Florida.

C.A.Hughes
Cape Coral, Florida

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