Full-page Everglades ad aims to shame Florida sugar owners

A line of black water moves out of the St. Lucie Inlet south along the coast.
A line of black water moves out of the St. Lucie Inlet south along the coast. Courtesy of

Everglades advocates upped their fight against U.S. Sugar Tuesday with a full-page ad in the New York Times and another planned for Wednesday’s Miami Herald, calling out the nonprofit that derives much of its wealth — and its name — from the sugar grower.

“Restoring America’s Everglades, which means so much to so many, depends upon U.S. Sugar Corp.’s participation as a full and committed partner, as opposed to it remaining a steadfastly uncommunicative, unwavering obstructionist,” Everglades Trust president Mary Barley wrote in a letter addressed to William White, who serves as chief of the Charles Stuart Mott Foundation and sits on the board of the sugar giant founded by Mott.

The Mott Foundation also holds a board seat on the Environmental Grantmakers Association meeting this week in Miami Beach. Among the featured speakers is Mona Hana-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint, Mich., Mott’s hometown, who helped draw attention to the city’s contaminated water pipes.

The letter comes as the fight over Everglades restoration becomes increasingly nasty. In a Palm Beach Post editorial headlined Glades Lives Matter last week, Hendry County Commissioner Janet Taylor depicted environmentalists as coastal elites insensitive to the plight of everyday farmers. This weekend, the Huffington Post published a 4,000-word essay portraying sugar growers as the rich recipients of corporate welfare. U.S. Census data shows the average farm in Hendry is valued at nearly $5 million.

Barley said the Trust resorted to the letter after two decades of failed attempts to meet with White about Everglades restoration work and thwarted efforts last year to buy land for a critical reservoir.

“The three most important estuaries in the state of Florida are being destroyed by one company that they control,” said Barley, who wants U.S. Sugar to stop blocking efforts to buy cane fields.

U.S. Sugar spokeswoman Judy Sanchez defended the company’s efforts to clean up pollution, saying growers on average cut pollution by 56 percent every year for the last 20 years.

“Ms. Barley and her radical friends at the Everglades Trust are trying to use a true emergency – historically heavy rains and flooding in January – to attack U.S. Sugar and push their political agenda,” Sanchez wrote. “Ms. Barley blatantly omits that U.S. Sugar’s senior leadership has met with her organization numerous times over the years and that farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area have given up nearly 120,000 acres of their lands to assist in the restoration efforts, and that EAA farmers clean every drop of water that leaves their lands.”

Record rain in January forced water managers to begin dumping massive amounts of water from Lake Okeechobee to protect the lake’s aging dike and reduce the risk of flooding cane fields and communities to the south. Such massive dumps, which soiled both coasts with black and brown water, in the past have caused widespread damage to the estuaries at the mouths of the rivers, where seagrass beds and oysters can’t tolerate such high amounts of freshwater. The releases also followed a summer drought that killed acres of seagrass in Florida Bay, spread a stinky plume of sulfur and showed just how vulnerable state waters had become after years of damaging flood control measures.

State lawmakers now meeting in Tallahassee are now considering scaling back a hard-fought plan to spend $200 million a year on Everglades restoration for the next 20 years after passing a sweeping water policy bill in the first week of the session that eased restrictions on polluters.

As a nonprofit, Barley argued that it is hypocritical for the Mott Foundation to bill itself as an environmental champion while collecting so much money from an industry blamed for polluting much of the Everglades. The Mott Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.

“Now they’re saying they won’t even look at building a reservoir until 2021,” she said. “We can’t be run by a polluting company or we’ll just end up a big cesspit, which is practically what we are now.”