Florida to Purchase U.S. Sugar Corp. Farmland

Published on: 06:26AM Jun 25, 2008

By Jim Wiesemeyer
via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

$1.75 billion deal would provide 'missing link' to protect state's coastal estuaries and the Everglades

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Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) on Tuesday announced the state will buy out the assets of United States Sugar Corp., including the company's 292 square miles of sensitive farmland in the Everglades Agricultural Area.

State and federal officials, environmental groups, lawmakers, and others hailed the news and said it would speed restoration of the Everglades. Crist said the $1.75 billion deal would provide the "missing link" needed to protect the state's coastal estuaries and the Everglades.

More negotiations ahead. The South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) and U.S. Sugar officials are to negotiate a final agreement, with closing expected in about six years, the statement said. During that time, U.S. Sugar will continue to farm and manage the land, which is located south of Lake Okeechobee in Palm Beach, Hendry, and Glades counties.

Crist said. It would be the largest conservation purchase in state history. Part of the land would be turned into a series of reservoirs and pollution filtering areas that would restore the flow of water between the lake and Everglades National Park. Part of it could be swapped for more desirable land for the project. But more than 100,000 acres of it could be turned back to farming — perhaps growing crops for use as fuel, said Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Mike Sole.

Key to the deal: According to Crist, the key to getting the deal started was a federal lawsuit filed by Earthjustice and the Florida Wildlife Federation, challenging the practice of backpumping farm runoff containing phosphorous, pesticides and other chemicals into the lake. The suit contended that backpumping triggered massive algae blooms and compromised drinking water quality for small towns such as Pahokee and South Bay that draw their supply from the lake. In December 2006, U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga ruled that backpumping violates the Clean Water Act. Then in August 2007, the South Florida Water Management District — the defendant in the case — voted 4-3 to end the practice.

Surprise, surprise. Crist said that when he first proposed buying everything U.S. Sugar owns, "originally there was some surprise" among even his staff. "But the more people thought about it, they thought, why not?" U.S. Sugar vice president Robert Coker said when he heard about Crist's idea, "I just about passed out. That's a pretty big deal in my world." The eight months of negotiations were conducted in such secrecy that not even federal officials leading the Everglades restoration knew about it before Monday.

Background: U.S. Sugar produces 700,000 tons of sugar a year, or about 8 percent of all sugar produced in the nation. The company, which operates its own railroad, employs 1,700 workers.

Comments: Crist is among those reportedly on GOP presumptive presidential candidate John McCain's vice presidential short list. While Crist has been criticized by some environmentalists for his changed position in support of offshore drilling for oil, the deal with U.S. Sugar Corp. will forever equate his name with helping to restore the Everglades.

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