Sugar isn’t the only corrupt industry that can buy communities to silence complaints about its pollution. But it might be the only one that gets taxpayers to pick up the cost.
Martin County taxpayers are being pushed by Flint, Michigan-based US Sugar to join a long line of Floridians paying to clean up the company’s waste.
Next week sugar-financed Martin County commissioner Doug Smith expects voters to tax themselves, supposedly for leaky septic systems that experts say aren’t causing toxic algae blooms. Commissioners aren’t mentioning that the tax and the project will help US Sugar avoid sharing responsibility for the blooms. Or telling voters exactly how they plan to spend taxpayers’ money, either.
It’s a proven winner from US Sugar’s playbook. Here’s how it works:
- First, deny that generations of industrial-scale pollution by the sugar industry have anything to do with massive algae blooms on Lake Okeechobee. Insist that they’re caused by something local, like septic tanks.
Then, spend whatever it takes to buy local elections, and direct winners to publicly take the blame for toxic algae, faulting area homeowners with septic systems.
Next, have your politicians propose that homeowners pay for it by funding huge “cleanup” costs. Provide as little information as possible about what, exactly, is getting cleaned up.
Last, use the money on projects that actually generate more pollution. Allow faster development and bigger septic systems, and then tell the world how increasing local sources are making the disaster worse.
(Optional) Propose that taxpayers contribute even more money to clean up the mess made by all these new septic systems. If anyone asks about toxic algae, keep pointing out that homeowners already admitted to causing the problem. Make them pay.
This sounds funnier than it is, but US Sugar uses this approach all over. This isn’t a St. Lucie watershed issue, or a Ft. Myers issue, or an Everglades issue. It’s a systematic way to influence any local government, avoid regulation, and pass pollution cleanup costs onto taxpayers. And Martin County happens to offer a clear example of the formula in practice:
Phase 1: The Septic Lie
The best lies contain a nugget of truth, and blaming nutrient overload and toxic algae on septic tanks is a well-crafted lie. Industry-friendly Sen. Kevin Rader repeated the lie on the senate floor, estimating that Martin County has 200,000 septic tanks and an “enormous” issue, adding, “They created this problem. I’d like to see them pay for it.”
The truth is that the county has roughly 18,000 septic tanks, according to Dr. Brian Lapointe, and they contribute roughly 3% of the total phosphorus in the St. Lucie River. Although Lapointe’s research is boisterously cited by US Sugar, even he refused to endorse the septic lie: He told TC Palm that the toxic bloom came from the lake and wouldn’t have happened without discharges.
Phase 2: Sugar’s Man in Martin
US Sugar had in Doug Smith a local mercenary who proved he’d stay loyal to the home office. But as big sugar’s connection to the toxic algae crisis went national, Smith faced a tough challenge in the 2016 republican primary. US Sugar had already bought its way into local organizations like the Economic Council and area chambers of commerce. They went to work for Smith. Jensen Beach Chamber’s Ron Rose--now running for Stuart City Council--even co-authored paperwork to inject 18-year-old Chase Lurgio into the race to close the primary and cut off growing support for Sewall’s Point’s former mayor and commissioner Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch. Meanwhile a US Sugar-funded PAC spent vast sums stuffing mailboxes with flyers attacking her.
Smith followed the script, insisting that area homeowners’ septic tanks were triggering the devastating toxic algae blooms on the St. Lucie while riding the US Sugar political machine to a narrow win. Smith had signed the Now Or Neverglades Declaration calling for an end to the discharges--more or less a requirement to be electable while toxic discharges were in the headlines, packing emergency rooms and destroying local businesses. But he reneged soon after the election and actually opposed Sen. Joe Negron’s efforts to end them.
Phase 3: “I’d like to see them pay for it.”
Led at first by Smith, the Board of County Commissioners then crafted a plan to rush a 1% sales tax referendum through, calling it a “one cent” initiative to distract from its 10-year, $230 million price tag. US Sugar put its team on the ground to work, issuing a letter from the Economic Council urging higher taxes because “leaking septic tanks are in need of repair and replacement.” Bizarrely, Smith then opposed putting the referendum on the ballot when fellow commissioners refused to earmark the proceeds for undefined quality-of-life expenditures--the equivalent of a blank check.
Meanwhile, guiding the proposed uses of this government windfall, the county’s Revised Water Quality Needs Assessment completely avoids Lake Okeechobee and toxic algae discharges, ignoring the source of the problem and focusing entirely on the estimated 3% caused by local contributions. The result: voters are being pushed to blame themselves--and tax themselves--for pollution caused by largely by US Sugar.
Phase 4: Spoils to the Loyals
Because the 1% tax proposal includes virtually no information on how the money will be spent, none of the supporters can be called a liar when the funds aren’t spent on water quality projects--like the $10 million siphoned off the last sales tax hike for the Sailfish Splash Waterpark. Officials are already signaling that septic-to-sewer conversions aren’t necessarily a priority.
Last week a local resident reportedly notified the county about a leaky septic tank near the north fork of the St. Lucie, and asked if the 1% tax hike would go to septic conversions in the area. No, he was told: His neighborhood wasn’t on the sewer list--but new projects outside the Urban Service Boundary were.
So commissioners appear to have quietly (but openly) promised the tax proceeds to developers, for projects that contribute more sewage to the county’s systems. Despite taking the blame for the river’s pollution and being taxed for it, the only change county residents seem likely to see is more sprawl, more sewage, and more septic tanks, with the potential to turn a fake septic problem into a real one. If Smith’s "blame the residents" plan works, loyal developers/donors get free infrastructure and municipal services on the backs of taxpayers, US Sugar gets to keep using the St. Lucie (and Caloosahatchee) as an open sewer without cost or accountability, and Floridians are still on the hook to pay for the sugar industry’s pollution.
The Achilles Heel: Voters
Martin County Commissioner Ed Fielding joked in this week’s board meeting that opposition to the 1% tax finally united area democrats and republicans. He exposed the one weak spot in the scheme: If the out-of-town agenda overreaches, local voters might sniff it out.
Maybe so-called conservatives pushing a tax increase to benefit an out-of-state company smelled wrong to republicans? Maybe a community investment that had no intention of benefiting the community smelled wrong to everyone?
In any case the lessons of Martin County’s story apply everywhere. To a politically savvy and well-financed industry like sugar, it’s not especially difficult, costly, or time-consuming to quiet dissent and destroy local communities from within. It’s no coincidence that Flint-based US Sugar makes this formula work almost everywhere it tries.