Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet unanimously approved the request of two agriculture companies Wednesday allowing them to renew their leases to farm state land in exchange for swapping other parcels to use for Everglades clean-up efforts.
The governor, as well as Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater acted despite concerns of environmental groups that the conditions of the leases to A. Duda & Sons and Florida Crystals were overly generous and would limit the state’s options for cleaning up the Everglades in the future.
The environmentalists urged the Cabinet re-negotiate a shorter-term lease that gives the state the options it may need if the restoration projects require more land in the future.
"You are the landlord and it is your right and your duty to insist that the tenant maximize their efforts to reduce the impact of the land," said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. "The lease extensions preclude your ability to insist upon that accountability."
But Melissa Meeker, executive director of the South Florida Water Management District, told the Cabinet there will be no need for the leased land.
"The leases are so far outside where any potential project would be,’’ she said, "we feel very confident that we have the land we need.’’
The environmental groups said they will take their appeal to the water management district board, which must approve the lease agreements.
"We still hope they will reduce the length of the lease,’’ said Charles Pattison of 1000 Friends of Florida. He said if the state decides it needs additional land covered under the leases, it could be on the hook to pay the growers for lost income from farming.
Only a fraction of the 440,000 acres in the Everglades area is state-owned; the leases negotiated with the two companies cover about 14,000 acres.
An independent study released last year by RTI International concluded that 76 percent of the pollution in the Everglades is caused by private farming south of Lake Okeechobee, but the agriculture industry is only paying 24 percent of the clean-up costs. The rest is paid by taxpayers.
An amendment inserted into the Florida Constitution by voters in 1996 requires that the companies polluting the Everglades should bear the primary responsibility for clean-up costs.
There was no discussion of clean-up costs at Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting. Scott, who signed a pivotal agreement with the federal government last year that commits $880 million in state funds to clean-up efforts, asked Meeker if the lease deal were necessary to move forward with clean-up plans.
Meeker said the agreement was essential to allow the state to obtain a crucial piece of property from Florida Crystals to allow it to expand a crucial clean-up project known as the STA-1 West and urged the Cabinet not to delay a vote on the leases.
Environmentalists also urged the Cabinet to impose stricter clean-up requirements on the companies that lease state land than they do on their private land, but the state refrained from doing it.
Emails between officials at the Division of State Lands and the attorney representing Florida Crystals show that the state attempted to get them to agree to stricter requirements, but they said it would be a "deal breaker," thereby threatening the progress of the STA-1 West project.
The sugar companies argued that they already exceed the state requirements for cleaning up water discharged from their farming operations. They also noted that every acre of land that remains in farming — including state land — equals jobs for their employees.
"Every time we take land out of production it costs jobs,’’ said Gaston Cantens, vice president of Florida Crystals. "Everyone likes to beat up on us."