Tallahassee — Despite finding widespread contamination of U.S. Sugar lands it seeks to purchase, the State of Florida had previously shown minimal interest in preventing or remedying pollution by the company, according to state records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). From 1988 through 2007, the Florida Department of Environmental protection (DEP) cited U.S. Sugar Corporation’s Clewiston and Bryant Mills for pollution violations only three times, assessing a total of $16,143 in penalties. DEP data do not reflect any other assessments against U.S. Sugar Corporation for the twenty-year time period.
By contrast, a new state “Environmental Due Diligence Investigation” of the 187,000 acres of U.S. Sugar lands dated November 13, 2008 concludes that more than half of those lands, in excess of 100,000 acres, are seriously polluted with contaminants that are dangerous to both humans and wildlife. This report concludes that the cost of cleaning up the soils can not be reliably estimated:
“It is not possible to accurately determine corrective action costs to any degree given the fact that the footprint(s) of any potential water resources projects are not known and the end land use for those parcels that will ultimately be sold for other use is not known…The difficulty in projecting costs is also compounded by the fact that many of the contaminants in the soil are co-located. For example, copper, arsenic, and chlorinated pesticides are all present in some of the muck soil areas where historical vegetable farms were located. Elevated human health and ecological risks are associated with these areas based on the different chemicals which are present.”
“If these lands are so polluted where has the state been for all these years?” asked Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney, pointing out that the clean-up responsibilities need to be determined up front. “We do not want Florida taxpayers paying twice for polluted land – once to purchase it and a second time to clean it up.”
Besides the cost, the pollution poses other obstacles for restoring the Everglades, which is supposed to be the object of the U.S. Sugar deal. Accumulated pollution in both the soil and the water may cause mass poisoning of wildlife from releases of highly polluted waters. In addition, it is not clear that these contaminated soils would support the return of the native saw grasses.
“Unless the state starts enforcing the Clean Water Act, it will be engaged in an expensive effort to transfer dirty water around the state,” Phillips added, pointing to a series of federal court decisions faulting federal oversight of state enforcement. “Florida’s abysmal track record on environmental protection efforts does not bode well for the future of the Everglades.”
PEER obtained the U.S. Sugar enforcement figures as part of a comprehensive report it is releasing next week on the past twenty years of DEP enforcement.