Wildlife Federation sues Rick Scott and Cabinet over Everglades leases

The Florida Wildlife Federation has sued Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet to stop its recent decision to allow sugar and vegetable farmers to continue leasing state-owned land in the Everglades for another 30 years.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Wildlife Federation by Earthjustice, which represents a coalition of environmental groups in a federal legal challenge to clean-up agricultural pollution. It alleges that the farming has the potential to exacerbate the pollution the state is attempting to clean-up and the 30-year deal violates a state law requiring private leases on state lands to serve the public interest.

“This is obviously not in the public interest,” said David Guest, lawyer for Earthjustice. “These leases would allow corporate agricultural pollution to continue unabated, and there is no requirement for any additional cleanup. These state leases don’t even include any pollution discharge limits to protect the Everglades.”

Gaston Cantens, vice president of Florida Crystals, one of the sugar companies that benefits from the lease deal, said the lawsuit will only serve to delay progress in the Everglades.

"The only thing Earthjustice has done since 1988 is file lawsuits and obstruct progress,’’ he said. "Our goal is Everglades restoration. Apparently, David Guest’s goal is Everglades litigation."

Under the agreed arrangement, the state will renew leases on 14,000 acres of the Everglades Agricultural Area for A. Duda & Sons and Florida Crystals in exchange for land needed for clean-up projects.

The Scott administration rejected suggestions by environmentalists to re-negotiate a shorter-term lease that gives the state more flexibility in the event the leased land is needed for future clean-up projects. But South Florida Water Management District officials assured them the land would not be needed, prompting Scott and the Cabinet to reject the requests.

“Rather than lock these state lands up for 30 years, the state should be using these state-owned agricultural lease parcels to maximize water pollution cleanup in the Everglades and restore Lake Okeechobee,’’ said Manley Fuller, president of the Florida Wildlife Federation in statement.

The Florida’s Department of Environmental Regulation also came to the defense of the Cabient. In a statement released Thursday, it called the leases "essential for water quality protection in Florida’s Everglades and will secure property critical for water storage and protection for the Caloosahatchee River and Estuary."

The leases were first negotiated in 1994 when land from sugar and vegetable operations in the EAA was being used for Stormwater Treatment Areas — artificial marshes which take up fertilizer before the runoff reaches the delicate Everglades. Rather than the traditional six-year leases, the state agreed to give the companies 20-year leases in exchange for the clean-up efforts. Environmentalists now want the state to impose additional clean-up requirements in exchange for the longer 30-year leases.