Blue-green algae blooms. Credit: UF/IFAS, University of Florida
Hey everybody, good news! We can all come out of the storm shelters! The Legislature left!
The two-month session ended last week with the traditional declaration of “sine die,” which is Latin for “good riddance.” As the lawmakers departed, they left behind teams of lobbyists gleefully tallying their clients’ per-hour charges as a handful of reporters picked through the rubble to see what passed.
Two of the worst things that survived the session are related to our ongoing water pollution woes. Both are likely to make things a lot worse. Both came as something of a surprise.
The other was a surprise because nobody saw it coming — except, of course, for the nefarious political forces that sprung this last-minute assault on clean water.
Both have to do with our addiction to the F-drug. Fentanynl? No, something even more widespread and insidious: Fertilizer.
You may have noticed all the headlines lately regarding toxic algae blooms that wipe out marine life and threaten human health. Fertilizer washed into waterways by our frequent summer storms tend to fuel these algae blooms.
One of the most effective measures to combat these awful algae attackers is a summertime fertilizer sales ban. Such bans cut back on fertilizer use at a time when it really counts, and when your lawn doesn’t need as much fertilizing.
Seventeen Florida counties and more than 100 Florida cities have adopted these kind of tough summer bans, according to Cris Costello of the Sierra Club
You know who hates these bans? The fertilizer industry.
Fertilizer companies feel about these summer fertilizer bans the way gun manufacturers feel about gun control measures: Sure, it may be good for society as a whole, but it hurts their bottom line. That means the restrictions must be undercut or overturned.
How can they ban the bans? They work with agreeable politicians like ours to throw up roadblocks.
Thus, in the dark hours of one of the final nights of the legislative session, with zero input from the public, Florida’s record-setting $117 billion budget suddenly sprouted a little $250,000 appropriation to the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences for a study on seasonal fertilizer bans.
And until the study is done, the budget says, none of 100 or so other local governments can impose or even revise a tough seasonal fertilizer ban.
“Lawmakers took no testimony from local government officials or environmental advocates, who are now warning that the measure could dramatically impede efforts to curb toxic algae outbreaks that feed on nitrogen and phosphorus-rich runoff,” the Miami Herald reported.
Cue Private Gomer Pyle shouting, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”
“A sneak attack was the only way they were going to get this done,” Costello told me.
The other side of the fence
The first fertilizer limits in Florida were imposed in the equestrian-friendly town of Wellington in 2000. You may recall that’s the same year we had that slight unpleasantness involving our presidential election, thus guaranteeing that, for at least a decade, no Florida mom would name her child Chad.
The first comprehensive county fertilizer limits were passed in that hotbed of wild-eyed liberals known as Sarasota County, now the home base of a certain former president’s Truth Social network. This 2007 ordinance included a summer blackout period.
“The county approved its rules after more than a year of stakeholder meetings and public hearings,” the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported at the time, “but did not win over strident critics, especially pest control companies and fertilizer industry lobbyists who charged that the restrictions constitute overregulation.”
One fertilizer industry exec who didn’t take that stance was Michael Juchnowicz, founder and president of Gardenmasters of Southwest Florida.
Although his competitors called him a traitor, a deserter, and a double-crosser, Juchnowicz took the regulators’ side and worked with them to find the right mix of rules and products.
“Everybody in the industry was vehemently against this thing but, when we looked at it, we could see it was going to happen,” he told me. “So, I said: ‘Let’s jump on the other side of the fence.’”
Until Florida local governments began cracking down on rampant fertilizer-related pollution, he said, his industry had made no changes to its products or techniques since the 1950s. The local governments’ concern for the environment forced his industry to embrace necessary innovation.
Turns out the grass was just as green on that other side of the fence. He said he’s got more business now than he did back then. He serves 20,000 customers from Manatee County down to Collier County and his son, who covers the adjacent territory, has 20,000 more.
“The restrictions work for us,” he said. “We don’t lose business.”
But total fertilizer use did decline. In 2014, Harvey Harper III, a University of Central Florida civil engineering professor and president of Orlando-based Environmental Research & Design, in a presentation to the Florida Stormwater Association, used state data to show that fertilizer use in Florida had been on the decline since 2000.
Juchnowicz admitted that his way of thinking still hasn’t caught on. He also acknowledged that UF’s agriculture program, which would be in charge of doing the study, is generally viewed as being as close to the fertilizer industry as Ginger Rogers was to Fred Astaire.
So, it makes sense that one very large fertilizer company was willing to turn to UF for a study as an excuse to slam the lid on regulations.
Who would mount such a sneak attack? According to Florida lobbying records, the Tennessee company that bills itself as “America’s No. 1 Lawn Co.,” TruGreen. TruGreen hired a former House speaker named Steve Crisafulli as their lobbyist.
Crisafulli comes from a Brevard County citrus-growing family and built his political career thanks to major infusions of cash from Big Sugar. He was one of the elected Florida officials who accepted secret hunting trips to Texas from U.S. Sugar, which tells you how much he cares about both open government and clean water.
Crisafulli wouldn’t talk to reporters back when he was the House speaker from 2014 to 2016, so I was surprised he answered my phone call this week. The UF study, and what he called “the one-year pause,” were indeed what his client wanted, he said.
“We feel it’s important to follow the science and let the science determine the policy,” he told me.
So why not run this through the House or Senate as a bill with public hearings? Why just spring it as a last-minute budget item?
Because passing a bill “makes it permanent,” he said.
I pointed out that that’s not true and the Legislature could have simply approved a bill calling for the study, which would have allowed for public comment on the “pause.”
“Yes,” he replied, “but I can’t imagine that anyone would argue against a science-backed study.” (Perhaps he was asleep during all the recent arguments over science-backed COVID prevention measures.)
Legislative leaders echoed his arguments about how this pro-pollution ambush was no big deal. They were dodgier than Dickens’ Artful Dodger in avoiding any mention of the fact that they had held no public hearings nor invited public comment.
“It’s only for one year and then it goes away,” harrumphed Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, a real estate lawyer in Naples.
On the floor of the Senate on the next-to-last day of the session, there was a brief discussion. Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Trying Really Hard, asked more than once whether there was a bill connected to this mystery appropriation.
The response came from another Jason — Sen. Jason Brodeur, who’s such a friend to the environment that he won a 2021 award from the Florida Home Builders Association. Turns out he chairs the Senate’s environmental appropriations committee, which makes perfect sense in our Bizarro World state government.
If Brodeur’s name rings a bell, you may recall he was involved in a “ghost candidate” scandal in Seminole County that pushed him into stepping down from his $115,000-a-year job as CEO of the Seminole County Chamber of Commerce.
On the Senate floor, Brodeur repeatedly avoided answering Pizzo’s question, instead trotting out the “just a year” line. Then, referring to the study to be funded, he said, “This simply says let’s rely on the science,” as if nobody had been doing that for the past 20 years.
Considering Sen. Brodeur’s documented hostility toward writers who say derogatory things about Florida elected officials, I’ll hold off telling you what I thought of his statements. Let me just say that you could use them as an organic fertilizer.
But wait, I haven’t told you yet about the other fertilizer-related measure that our fine legislators flung at us like angry monkeys at the zoo. That’s another messy one.
This one is House Bill 1191, sponsored by a Dover environmental consultant named Lawrence McClure. His specialty is a state program with my favorite bureaucratic acronym of all time: Leaking Underground Storage Tanks, or LUST for short.
But what McClure was concerned about in this legislation is a different toxic cleanup measure: The waste from phosphate processing.
Fertilizer has three main ingredients: nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus. The latter comes from Florida’s phosphate mines — you know, the ones found next to 100-foot-high mounds of radioactive waste, aka phosphogypsum.
When phosphate companies turn their mined rock into fertilizer, they produce about five tons of phosphogypsum waste to every ton of fertilizer. There are a couple of dozen of these man-made mountains towering above our flat Central Florida landscape.
They make the news when they fail. For instance, in 2016, a 45-foot-wide sinkhole opened up under one in Mulberry and swallowed the 78-acre pond of polluted water atop the 190-foot mound. Plugging that hole took two years.
Since 1989, the EPA has banned using phosphogypsum waste for construction projects, roads, or anything other than big piles because the waste exceeds the level of radioactivity regarded as safe for humans. Then, about a month before the 2020 presidential election, the coal industry lobbyist who was running the EPA announced that the agency had changed its mind.
With absolutely no notice to the public, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler proclaimed that the agency had decided that the stuff that the EPA once deemed too dangerous would now be safe enough to use in building roads.
Wheeler did not explain how allowing the use of radioactive material in roads aids public health, so I joked that the radiation must provide us all with free x-rays.
The EPA flip-flop was based entirely on a study produced by The Fertilizer Institute, which is kind of like asking Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra who’s the best team in the NBA. He may give you an accurate answer, but chances are there’s going to be some bias.
The analysis by The Fertilizer Institute looked at the risk to road construction workers, truck drivers transporting the phosphogypsum, utility workers performing work on utilities at or under roads, people who actually drive on the roads, and residents living near roads built with the radioactive stuff.
The conclusion: Building roads with phosphogypsum “would be at least as protective as keeping [it] in stacks.”
Of course, the difference is that the stacks remain on the phosphate company property, off-limits to the general public, while roads would be accessible to everyone.
But now here comes the Florida Legislature, trying to turn that radioactive waste into a highway that doesn’t need streetlights because it glows in the dark.
The largest phosphate company in the world, Tampa-based Mosaic, is all in favor of this legislation, according to spokeswoman Jackie Barron.
“Over 20 other countries reuse phosphogypsum in over 50 different ways, including as a material in road base, and have done so for some time,” she told me. “This is an opportunity to join the rest of the world in this environmentally sound practice and better promote a circular economy.”
Speaking of the economy, the Tampa Bay Times reported last month that Mosaic “pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign coffers of Republicans across the state, including Gov. Ron DeSantis.”
The company “also spent $20,000 to entertain lawmakers at a gathering last year spearheaded by one of its key allies in the Legislature, Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Plant City, who reported last year that he owned $6,000 of company stock.”
Party on, Larry!
Anyway, both the House and Senate approved McClure’s bill, which immediately made it fodder for all the “Florida is weird!” websites. They headlined the story with snarky sentences such as, “Florida gets glowing reviews for its roads.”
The good news is that if the governor does sign the radioactive roads bill into law, the EPA will have to approve doing even a test run.
And in the unlikely event the EPA looks kindly on a Florida application, “EPA would open a public comment period, make any applications and our technical analysis of those applications publicly available, and seek input on the proposed decision,” agency spokeswoman Shayla Powell told me this week.
More concerning is the budget line ban on fertilizer bans. Costello said she’s hopeful that Gov. Ron “How Can I Run for President While Wearing These White Boots?” DeSantis will veto that specific appropriation, killing both the study and the “pause.”
“If he doesn’t veto,” she said, “he is saying in no uncertain terms that he is all for jettisoning urban stormwater pollution into our waters to fuel the toxic algae that kill local waterfront economies and endanger Floridians’ health. This is a no-brainer for anyone with political ambitions.”
Being a less idealistic, more cynical sort — as are many native Floridians — I think the bigger question is how much the governor might collect in presidential campaign contributions. For Florida politicians, that’s the True Green.
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