1300 miles separates Flint, Michigan where mostly poor African Americans have been exposed to toxic amounts of lead in drinking water, and Clewiston, Florida -- home of US Sugar Corporation. The distance is nothing to the descendants of Charles Stewart Mott.
Mott built his fortune in the early 20th century through an automotive empire that became General Motors. He also bought a Florida sugar company along the way, US Sugar Corporation; the largest producer of sugarcane in the state.
|River Warriors protest filthy water coating both coasts, Stuart FL, Feb. 26 2016|
The Charles Stuart Mott Foundation, based in Flint, has an endowment of more than $2.7 billion. One of its core missions is protection of fresh water resources. In recent years the foundation awarded grants to; "ensuring healthy river flows", "Alabama Urban Stormwater Project", "Harbor Maintainance and Upstream Sediment Reduction", "Great Lakes Water Quality Project", and the "Tulane Environmental Law Clinic Water Quality and Wetlands Project". The Foundation and the CS Mott Children's Hospital are controlling shareholders of US Sugar Corporation.
Mott established the C.S. Mott Foundation in 1926; a lasting legacy of care and help protecting the welfare of Flint, Michigan. Despite its long history supporting clean water, the foundation was surprised as anyone about the massive contamination of drinking water brewing under its own feet. It is hard to know how the foundation squares its ownership of US Sugar with similar perils to water quality in Florida.
The problem with Big Sugar that dominates water policies and politics in Florida: it is everyone's peril.
The vast toilet in Florida called Lake Okeechobee is overflowing. The lake is the largest in Florida and also defines the political geography of one of the nation's most politically influential states. Historic January rainfall elevated lake water levels a foot above the safety zone in the middle of winter, the season the lake is normally allowed to dry down in anticipation of coming rains. Because of concentrated drainage basins upstream and downstream, too, where sugarcane is grown, a foot of rainfall translates to a four-foot rise in lake levels. After unprecedented winter rainfall and to relieve pressure on the aging dike, the state and the US Army Corps of Engineers opened the floodgates of hell on downstream communities. Beginning in late January, more than 60,000 gallons per second of filthy water began spewing towards billions of dollars of downstream real estate and tourism-dependent businesses on both Florida coasts.
|Fort Myers pollution, Feb 27 2016 photo credit: John Heim|
This failed response by government to pollution in some ways resembles the Flint catastrophe, except that Florida's does not strictly involve poor African Americans requiring rescue from trucks filled with bottled water. In Florida, the manifest failures of state government and politics have beached the livelihoods of fishing guides, realtors, hotels and motel and tourism-dependent businesses onto scummy shores of political indecision like dead fish.
The bright fact is that water infrastructure in South Florida is organized around powerful sugar growers who farm on nearly 450,000 acres around the southern rim of the Lake in an area called the Everglades Agricultural Area. When it is too dry or when it is too wet, Big Sugar demands that its fields are irrigated to extract maximum profits. The Goldilocks principle of water management serves Big Sugar, whether it floods or drought prevails. And especially when it is too wet, if water managers deem the dike integrity to be threatened, massive pump stations and spigot are turned to release billions of gallons of polluted water to the east and to the west, pouring scum from beaches on the Gulf and Atlantic to the horizon.
The industry's privileges are well-documented including massive profits through federal farm subsidies regularly approved by Congress and control of water infrastructure and pollution by the GOP led state legislature in Tallahassee. Through adroit manipulation of Congressional votes on US farm policy, Florida sugar producers are among the richest recipients of subsidized, corporate welfare in the nation. Forbes Magazine crystalized the sugar subsidy embedded in the Farm Bill:
"The federal program that resembles a Soviet Union relic works as follows: the U.S. Department of Agriculture guarantees a price floor for American sugar, below which it spends hundreds of millions of dollars to buy up excess sugar and bump the price back up to the minimum. Uncle Sam then sells the sugar at a steep discount to ethanol producers. Limits on imports also artificially prop up the prices that domestic sugar producers can charge. American consumers get fleeced on two fronts. Not only must they foot the bill for the subsidy scheme, they also have to pay higher prices at the grocery store for sugar, cakes, and confections. The U.S. sugar regime is cronyism at its finest." ("Big Sugar: Sanders and Rubio Share A Sweet Tooth", Forbes Magazine, August 25, 2015)
These days, protesters are massing along bridges and on beaches, in public meetings but especially on social media: a modern-day Florida Uprising in an electorate that is largely conservative, wealthy compared to the citizens of Flint, and inclined to vote Republican.
The industry at the center of emergency is also pushing back. Big Sugar and its supporters are blanketing affected counties with full page ads in local newspapers, assuring readers and politicians they support that Big Sugar is really just plain ordinary folk trying to make an honest hourly wage like the rest of Florida.
But massive pollution events have a way of blowing apart false equivalencies that serve an entrenched political status quo. That status quo in Flint is primarily a Republican invention: that burdensome environmental rules are a symptom of bloated environmental regulation and bureaucrats who go overboard in oppressing business and inhibiting jobs when, after all, the water you drink is perfectly fine as it is. With everyone looking the other way, the people of Flint were poisoned by a GOP governor.
It is a different demographic in Florida's water crisis. These aren't environmentalists, as Big Sugar portrays, raising alarm from privileged sanctuaries. Poisoned water is linking hundreds of thousands of people who don't belong to Sierra Club or any other organization and vote mainly Republican.
One YouTube video by fishing guide Mike Conner has been viewed nearly 400,000 times. Capt. Conner vents while in the background, filthy water courses through the gates of hell out of Lake Okeechobee. Facebook is filled, now, with photos of dead dolphin, fish floating white bellies up, and the lament of small business owners whose livelihoods depend on water too afraid of infection to even touch it. Both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts are now coated in toxic pollution, extending into the ocean.
Buy the land, send clean water south. Communities downstream barely recovered from the vomitorium the lake had turned into three years ago. GOP legislators, Gov. Rick Scott and presumptive heir, Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam, are studiously side-stepping the single measure that could provide future relief for taxpayers, for the rivers, estuaries and for the Everglades: purchase enough land now in sugarcane production south of Lake Okeechobee so that eventually clean, fresh water could course as it did naturally. Yesterday, Gov. Scott finally responded to the protesters declaring a state of emergency, nearly two months after the crisis started, blaming President Obama although everyone in Florida understands that Scott had a chance to take steps to resolve the crisis and failed: buy the land and send clean water south.
People are pushing back at a political order that has held in Florida for decades: the use of water infrastructure to keep Big Sugar in place by using others' property as sacrifice zones and taxpayers to prop up the whole, stinking mess.
"The bulk of the Mott Foundation's environmental work in the United States focuses on the freshwater challenge, with special emphasis on the country's Great Lakes region." There is no difference between the impacts of industrial agriculture on the Great Lakes, where the Foundation is investing resources to protect, and former Everglades, polluted by a corporation it controls: US Sugar. (William S. White has been both president of the Flint, Michigan-based foundation and chairman and CEO of US Sugar Corporation.)
Charitable organizations like the Mott Foundation are prohibited by law from engaging in political activities, but US Sugar exercises its massive leverage through campaign contributions at every level of government; from local county commissions to the White House. In the last quarter of 2015, US Sugar Corporation spent $165,000 lobbying in Tallahassee ("AT&T, HCA, U.S. Sugar in top three for lobbying expenses", Feb. 15, 2016).
These days, US Sugar is seeking out voices from poor African American communities to come to its defense, but in 2014, the Tampa Bay Times reported secret trips hosted by US Sugar at the King Ranch in Texas - one of the wealthiest corporate entities in Texas -- , with top Florida GOP officials, including the Gov. Rick Scott and Ag Secretary Adam Putnam. Only Republicans were invited, ferried by private jet to the exclusive hunting lodge. "The King Ranch trips weren't disclosed in any financial reports the Republican Party of Florida filed with the state. Unlike other fundraisers that were clearly listed, the trips were only alluded to by the listing of non-cash contributions that the party reported having accepted from U.S. Sugar." ("Florida legislators have stopped taking US Sugar trips to King Ranch", Feb. 9, 2015)
US Sugar was also a key player in a county commission race in Lee County in 2012. The corporation invested nearly $1MM dollars to defeat a 24-year incumbent, Ray Judah, a rare Republican leader who had been one of the staunchest critics of Big Sugar's polluting practices. Judah said, in an interview, this was the first time so much money had been invested in a coordinated attack through television, in a local county election.
"A number of individuals and organizations came together to create that perfect storm that was an overwhelming avalanche that I could not prevent from removing me from office," Judah told the Naples Daily News (August 6, 2012). Judah was removed in the first election cycle after the 2010 US Supreme Court 5-4 decision on Citizens United; the legal challenge to campaign finance limits that let the wild dogs loose.
Judah, one of the strongest advocates on Florida's west coast --had been a strong supporter of the effort by the state in 2008 to acquire US Sugar's 187,000 acres in the EAA. The deal had been approved by the shareholders including the board of the Charles Stuart Mott Foundation. Former GOP Gov. Charlie Crist had initiated the deal and paid his own political price only a few years later when his quixotic effort to run for the US Senate as a Democrat was thwarted by a Republican challenger with deep support from Big Sugar, Marco Rubio.
"They wanted me out." ... Judah said of the tsunami of political money that was spent against him by a PAC called Florida First. ... Florida First's contributions came largely from other political committees."
Documents filed with the state at the time show Nancy H. Watkins as treasurer of the poitical action committee. In 2012, The Palm Beach Post reported, "Watkins said she oversees as many as 120 political committees, some of them existing largely just on paper. But about half that number, she said, "are going fast and furiously right now." ... The biggest contributors to Florida's ruling Republicans are Florida's largest industries and associations, with the state's Chamber of Commerce, Walt Disney Corp., Florida Association of Realtors and U.S. Sugar among those dominating." ("Florida the 'Wild West' for third-party PACs", Oct. 8 2012,) Palm Beach Post.
Exactly how this happened should send shudders through the charitable foundation.
On June 27, 2012, US Sugar contributed $125,000 to a political committee called Partnership for Florida's Future, identified in the state campaign finance database as "an electioneering communications organization". Two months later, on August 7, US Sugar contributed an additional $200,000.
The same day, Partnership for Florida's Future contributed $225,000 to Florida First, and on August 9th, an additional $70,000.
Bear in mind, this was the first election cycle after the Citizens United decision by the US Supreme Court unleashed a tidal wave of unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns through dark money vehicles.
Only four years earlier, Judah had been alone among GOP public officials to advocate and to support the state buyout of 187,000 acres of lands owned by US Sugar. The land sale was approved by shareholders of Charles Stuart Mott Foundation.
Judah's defeat was part of a coordinated effort by Big Sugar to halt the purchase of sugar lands south of Florida's polluted lake. If the land sale had been completed, the state of Florida would have been on the way to solving the crisis that materialized in 2016 crisis coating both Florida coasts with scum.
In 2008, when the Mott family interests solicited bids and decided to sell US Sugar, the corporation generated considerable anger among long-time US Sugar pensioners. When the descendants of Charles Stuart Mott approved the deal with the state of Florda, environmentalists entertained a glimmer of hope that such a large land acquisition would finally point in the direction of purchasing key parcels held by competitors like the Fanjul's Flo-Sun/Florida Crystals and the King Ranch, also farmers and strategic land speculators in the EAA.
In 2010, US Sugar Corporation invested $100,000 in opposition to Fair Districts, the constitutional amendment to prohibit gerry-mandering that passed with more than 60 percent of a populist vote. The corporation donated more than $2.6 million to the Republican Party and Gov. Scott's re-election committee since 2012. U.S. Sugar gave $200,000 and competitor Florida Crystals and subsidiaries contributed $275,000 to the campaign of Gov. Rick Scott, ("US Sugar Corporation makes big contribution to Scott's inauguration, Treasure Coast Newspaper, Dec. 12, 2014).
Despite the fact that Florida voters approved a dedicated funding source in the 2014 election cycle, by more than 75 percent of the popular vote, to buy environmentally sensitive lands like those south of Lake Okeechobee, Scott has refused any discussion of state purchases of Big Sugar lands.
In the current election cycle, US Sugar has give to $249,000 to four PACs: Citizens Speaking Out, Florida Citizens for Change, Truth Matters, and The Committee for Responsible Representation. Its record, as analyzed over the past 17 years by the website, Follow The Money, is favoring the GOP and its candidates over Democrats by a ration of 10:1. US Sugar Corporation gave $505,000 to the PAC supporting Jeb Bush, Right To Rise, in early 2015. The gift was at first made by a charitable foundation of US Sugar, controlled by three US Sugar executives, but was quickly amended to a direct contribution from the corporation in order for the US Sugar Charitable Trust to avoid prosecution for violating IRS rules. ("Jeb Bush's shadow campaign chalks up a fishy donor disclosure to an administrative error", Quartz, August 5, 2015 )
In 2015, the Naples Daily News reported: ("Sugar from Cuba not a concern to US sugar producers", June 29, 2015)
"U.S. Sugar has paid the D.C. lobbying law firm Davis and Harman $50,000 per quarter since January 2014, when the most recent five-year Farm Bill was being negotiated. Florida Crystals paid the Washington-based firm Smith and Boyette $120,000 in the same period for work on legislation involving free-trade agreements, among other things, records show. Five sugar industry groups -- the American Sugar Alliance, American Crystal Sugar, U.S. Beet Sugar Association, Fanjul Corp. and the Sugar Cane League -- paid $8.4 million for lobbyist last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a good-government watchdog group."
Big Sugar's recent efforts resulted in the South Florida Water Management District board's unanimous vote in May to terminate its option to buy 48,600 acres of U.S. Sugar Corp. land south of Lake Okeechobee for use as a water storage area.
The water management district had been in favor of the plan until recently, but Big Sugar's plans changed, said Richard Grosso, director of the Land Use Law Clinic at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.
Grosso believes it's no coincidence that U.S. Sugar is proposing an 18,000-unit residential development called Sugar Hill on some of the option land south of Clewiston, accommodating 58,000 people by the time it is built out, according to Southwest Florida Regional Planning District documents. Part of the development would be on Caloosahatchee restoration land.
U.S. Sugar maintained that the largest 26,000-acre parcel of the option land, if dug out four feet deep, would only have held 104,000 acre-feet of water, a small fraction of the 4.5 million acre-feet discharged to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers in 2013."
In a letter published in the Treasure Coast Newspapers, Fort Pierce resident Kevin Stinnette wrote recently: "Despite studies that show that temporarily flooded fields do not pose a major risk to sugar production, Big Sugar puts communities south of the lake at risk, pollutes the lake, puts more pressure on the dike and causes devastation to coastal estuaries and the economies that are driven by diverse and healthy waters. Excess storm water should recharge aquifers by soaking in on EAA farms. It should not be pumped into the canals that threaten communities like Belle Glade. SFWMD backpumps under emergency provisions that could just as easily be used to have farmers turn off their pumps for two or three weeks while water evaporates or soaks in. Such a suspension could free up capacity for Lake Okeechobee water in the water conservation areas and reduce the chances of a dike failure that could devastate communities south of the lake. It would be a good start toward sending the water south when it needs to go south. Cost to taxpayers? Zilch!" (Treasure Coast Palm, February 15, 2016)
In its published information, the Charles Stuart Mott Foundation writes: "From its earliest origins, the Foundation's major concern has been the well-being of communities and all that they encompass -- individuals, families, neighborhoods and civic organizations. Today, this interest continues to play out through grantmaking in Flint as well as communities far beyond the Foundation's home city."
One can only guess how the founder of the family fortune would feel about these inescapable contradictions. Charles Stuart Mott was not just a philanthropist. He was deeply engaged in improving the lives of workers in Flint and also a three-time mayor of the city. He would likely be horrified by the steady, persistent erosion of federal authority and lax indifference of the state that lead to the massive lead contamination of his city today.
Here, too, there is a parallel with Big Sugar in Florida and the role of US Sugar in suppressing the regulation of toxics. The issue isn't phosphorous or nitrogen, used to fertilize sugar fields. It is sulfate, used as a soil additive to increase crop yield. The science is well-established how sulfate, drained from sugar farms, leads to the formation of one of the deadliest toxins; methyl mercury.
The website of the CS Mott Children's Hospital in Flint explains: "When mercury builds up to toxic levels in the human body, it can cause permanent neurological damage. If you are pregnant, mercury is dangerous to your developing fetus and later to your breast-feeding baby. A fetus exposed to mercury during pregnancy is especially likely to suffer mild to severe nervous system damage. In the same way, young children who eat a lot of fish containing mercury can suffer permanent brain damage."
One of the detrimental actions in the Everglades agricultural area occurs because these former Everglades soils lack free nutrients. To grow crops, farmers must make phosphate available. Because alkaline soils bind all the nutrients, farmers add elemental sulfur by the ton to adjust the soil pH and free the nutrients. Sulfur is converted to sulfate (sulfuric acid) by bacterial action. This feeds the sulfate-reducing bacteria that make methylmercury. As it turns out, it is evident that sulfate additions in this agricultural area have more to do with the methylmercury problem in the Everglades than mercury falling from the sky. Efforts are now being made to work out what the primary controlling set of processes is and the external factors that led to this large problem of mercury contamination in the Everglades.
South Florida is an area with ecosystem-wide postings for mercury, unique to fish consumption advisories for mercury in the United States. Only in South Florida does it say that no one should eat fish. Everywhere else, advisories state that one can eat one fish per month if you are not pregnant or of childbearing age. The eating and catching of fish are curtailed as revenue of hundreds of millions of dollars is being lost because tourists no longer come to fish.
Drainage canals in the agricultural area keep fields from becoming flooded, but they also convey the sulfate put on fields to the Everglades. The result is a 100-mile-long sulfate gradient that runs from the agricultural area just south of Lake Okeechobee all the way down to Everglades National Park. (Methylmercury Contamination of Aquatic Ecosystems: A Widespread Problem with Many Challenges for the Chemical Sciences, David P. Krabbenhoft, U.S. Geological Survey, Water Resources Division)
According to its website, The CS Mott Children's Hospital at the University of Michigan is launching a new telemedicine program to help reduce childhood obesity. (April 21, 2015) It is paradoxical, to say the least, that the hospital also profits from the massive political influence-peddling that makes sugar a widely available addictive substance to consumers and also the most ubiquitous. About seventy percent of processed foods contain sugar additives.
The children's hospital is consistently ranked as one of the top pediatric centers in the country according to U.S. News and World Report, but it is the influence peddling of US Sugar that contributes to the illnesses like obesity its dedicated employees are fighting every day. Pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Robert Lustig assesses the cumulative health cares cost of too-much-sugar in the American diet at a trillion dollars, annually.
Big Sugar is pushing back. In Florida, it is deploying the same tactics it used twenty years ago to thwart a constitutional amendment referendum that would have assessed a penny-a-pound tax on sugar to clean up the frightful mess it has caused by rallying poor African Americans around the issue of threatened jobs. In Washington, the industry is so powerful that Michele Obama and her "Get Moving" campaign was called off from criticizing sugar consumption, the primary cause of childhood diabetes and a disease focusing the attention of the CS Mott Children's Hospital.
The US Sugar Corporation website states, "As the vision of Charles Stewart Mott continues to unfold, U.S. Sugar is positioned to meet the challenges of the future with the same innovative thinking and respect for its employees and the environment that it has always exhibited."
For people, though, this time is different. The civic convulsion is uniting voters on both Florida coasts. In the past, voters in Sarasota and Fort Myers have not coalesced with the same energy around the same causes as Port St. Lucie or Stewart on the east coast. By-passing traditional media that has served as a blockade for Big Sugar, this turmoil around water pollution is coursing through a state heading to presidential primaries on March 15.
Water is personal, as the people of Flint, Michigan can attest. It is also political. In the last session of the state legislature, the GOP led officials including Gov. Scott refused to allocate funds to buy environmentally sensitive lands as voters had overwhelmingly approved in 2014. In the current session of the legislature, the same GOP officials overhauled state water policy to benefit agriculture; lower pollution standards and voluntary compliance measures were cemented as the new order at the same time historic rainfall over-filled Florida's polluted cup.
By accounts, Charles Stewart Mott understood how taking care of workers, quality of life, and protecting the environment were complementary activities of sound business practices.
The controlling shareholders of US Sugar are a family philanthropy and a children's hospital not the other way around. Based on the confusion of roles, one can easily imagine that were he alive today, Charles Stewart Mott would be funding protesters holding signs on Florida bridges and in town squares demanding the end to pollution in Florida, not abetting the rampant pollution of Florida.