Growers want state to give them 30-year no-bid access to Everglades land

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet will be asked on Wednesday to agree to a no-bid contract to allow two major agriculture companies to farm on Everglades land for another 30 years — a deal that would include pouring tons of phosphorous-laden fertilizer onto the site the state is spending billions to clean up.

The request from Florida Crystals and A. Duda and Sons is supported by the state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard and South Florida Water Management District officials. But environmentalists aren’t happy.

“The State of Florida is putting 13,952 acres of state land off the table as a possible solution to future problems,’’ said Charles Lee, director of advocacy for Audubon of Florida at a meeting of the Cabinet aides last week. “It is passing up an opportunity.”

Environmentalists have agreed to allow Florida Crystals to continue sugar farming 7,862 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area because the company has agreed to swap some of its land with the state in order to build a crucial water restoration project that is an important next step in the Everglades cleanup. However, environmentalists strongly oppose the Duda deal, which would allow that company to continue to grow vegetables on 6,089 acres of land and pump 339 tons of fertilizer each year into the Everglades, exacerbating the cleanup problem the state is spending billions to fix. They want the state to require Duda to reduce its phosphorous runoff in exchange for the favorable no-bid contract.

According to emails obtained by the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee bureau, Tracy Peters of the Division of State Lands initially suggested that Florida Crystals reduce its pollution levels in exchange for the lease extension. But the attorney for the company, Silvia Morell Alderman of Akerman Senterfitt, responded that such requirements “would be deal breakers” because the company has been improving its phosphorous levels for 17 years.

Gaston Cantens, vice president at Florida Crystals, said his company has exceeded the requirements imposed on them by the 1994 Everglades Forever Act and instead of reducing phosphorus levels by 25 percent, it has reduced them an average of 55 percent each year. “What else are we going to do?” Cantens said. “We’re already more than double what we were supposed to achieve.’’

Peters backed off and, on several occasions, asked Alderman’s permission to make other minor changes to the proposal, the emails show.

Under the 1994 act, the companies signed 20-year leases to farm land in the Everglades Agricultural Area in exchange for reducing polluted runoff. The proposal to be voted on by the governor and Cabinet Wednesday will extend five of those leases, which are set to expire between 2015 and 2018, and allow them to continue for another 30 years.

In September, Scott formally signed off on $880 million worth of Everglades cleanup projects, expanding efforts to stem the flow of polluted farm, ranch and yard runoff into the famed River of Grass. The agreement between the state, sugar growers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, would let the state move forward with building stormwater treatment projects and meet a series of discharge limits starting in 2018.

Lee told the Cabinet aides that the state may not have the legal authority to negotiate the lease renewal in the first place but, if it does, it should attempt to reduce phosphorous loads onto the land. A similar deal was cut three years ago when the state renewed agricultural leases as part of a land-purchase deal with U.S. Sugar and the company agreed to reduce phosphorous levels on the land in exchange for the lease renewals.

Manley Fuller of the Florida Wildlife Federation echoed Lee’s concerns that, by signing away the rights to the land, the state loses the flexibility it may need in the future if that land is needed for the cleanup. “We think these parcels ultimately can play an important role in our Everglades restoration objective and we don’t want to see a decision that would forego these opportunities,” he told the Cabinet aides.

But Ernie Barnett, director of Everglades policy for the South Florida Water Management district, said he is confident the state won’t need more land for cleanup. “We have all the real estate we need with the property in our portfolio,’’ he told the Cabinet aides. “We have a lot of work to keep us busy for decades going forward.”

Lee, however, said the state has been wrong before and could be wrong again. He said that while there are components of the agreement with Florida Crystals “that stink to high heaven,” the environmental community is “holding our noses a bit” because of the importance of the land swap to allow for expansion of a crucial piece of the water quality plan known as the STA 1 West.

He said he also supports the proposed agreement with Florida Crystals because the company has agreed to forgo farming on 2,200 acres situated near cleanup areas if the state decides it needs that land in the future.

The Duda proposal does not include those conditions and, Lee said, “has been rushed in front of you very suddenly” and “lacks urgency.” He said he will urge the governor and Cabinet to structure a lease agreement that requires the company to “substantially reduce the phosphorous concentrations and loadings coming off of this property.”

Two companies have filed protest letters with the state saying they would like an opportunity to bid on leasing the state agricultural land that Duda would get under the deal.

State officials disagree. Peters, project analyst with the Division of State Lands, told Duda’s attorney in an email that despite the objections, “we still believe it’s in the public interest to waive the competitive bid process.”

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald and @MaryEllenKlas