The Florida Wildlife Federation is suing Gov.
The disputed leases, approved in January, were part of a collection of state land purchases and trades aimed at acquiring farmland that could be used to store and clean up stormwater needed to replenish the Everglades.
But several environmental groups, including the Florida Wildlife Federation, Audubon of Florida and the Sierra Club, objected to the deal also allowing polluting agricultural operations to remain in place for 30 years on the 14,000 acres of state-owned land that was once part of the Everglades.
"We should be using these public lands to clean up the Everglades, not allowing corporations to continue to pollute our public lands," the federation's attorney David Guest said Thursday. "It's a fact that this agricultural runoff is filled with chemicals that wreck the Everglades. As any cook knows, when your soup is too salty, you don't add more salt."
The renewed leases are held by two major South Florida sugar growers, A. Duda and Sons and Florida Crystals, which have grown sugar cane on the land for the past several years.
Florida Crystals and Duda made the lease extensions requirements of deals that involve the companies trading or selling property elsewhere that the state is assembling for restoration.
The legal challenge is "ridiculous" and threatens to derail the state's efforts to acquire land for restoration, according to Florida Crystals Vice President Gaston Cantens said.
"What else is new? … Any time there is progress, they file another lawsuit," Cantens said. "It stops all the progress that is being made."
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday stood by the lease deals as vital to restoration efforts.
"These lease extensions are 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," DEP spokesman Patrick Gillespie said in a statement released Thursday. "Also, the transaction will allow for construction of a stormwater treatment area needed to achieve water quality standards established for the Everglades."
The lease extensions are tied to deals for the
Getting that Florida Crystals land would enable expanding a stormwater treatment area in Palm Beach County. Acquiring the Duda property would help restore the area around Lake Hipochee in Glades County.
But environmental groups that oppose the lease-portion of the deal say the state shouldn't be locking in more polluting agricultural production for decades to come while taxpayers are spending billions to restore the Everglades.
"It is public land [and] you are basically telling everybody you never intend to use the land for Everglades restoration," said Drew Martin of the Sierra Club in Palm Beach County.
Guest's argument hinges on a requirement that when a private interest applies for an agricultural lease on state lands, it has to prove that the activity isn't contrary to the greater public interest.