Dozens of lawyers armed with over 125 boxes of files, maps, charts and transcripts descended on a makeshift hearing room at the Supervisor of Elections office for the start of case brought by Audubon Florida against Big Sugar and the South Florida Water Management District, over farm pollution in the Everglades.
Audubon contends that the district should not renew permits to sugar growers in the Everglades agricultural area south of Lake Okeechobee without requiring the growers to use more best management practices – called BMPs – to reduce pollution that Audubon says runs off the farms and into the Everglades.
Kirk Burns, an attorney for the district said the growers had consistently met legal requirements to reduce phosphorus and that there is no reason to refuse to renew the permits. Also, there is no proof or research proving that additional BMPs would further reduce pollution limits, he said.
An attorney for the sugar industry said, by filing the administrative complaint, Audubon was trying to put the district’s BMP program on trial. Audubon’s case is built on a “snapshot” of farm conditions from “a one-day visit to 2 percent of the farms,” the attorney said.
Audubon attorney Michael Tanner countered, saying the 1994 Everglades Forever Act gave the district the power to impose BMPs but that power is not discretionary when additional BMPs would reduce pollution. BMPs are farming methods that promote optimum plant growth and minimize adverse environmental effects.
The industry rallied an army of attorneys and support personnel, who moved into the hearing room on Monday with over 100 boxes of support material. The entire Audubon team occupied one table.
“I think the industry is over-defending this,” said Eric Draper, Executive Director of Audubon Florida. “This won’t affect permits on adjacent lands. These are the six dirtiest farms.”
At stake for the industry is the fate of three permits for six farms that allow sugar to be grown on 235,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area. The permits regulate BMPs to be used on the land. Examples include cleaning canals, controlling aquatic weeds, levelling fields and preventing fertilizer spills.
Administrative Judge Bram D.E. Canter halted the hearing after the attorneys delivered their opening statements, citing the lack of audio in the room – making it difficult for the public to hear. Although speakers hung on the walls above the attorneys, there were no microphones.
“A hearing with this many people, we have to have mikes,” Canter said.
Moving the hearing to the auditorium at the district headquarters – less than a mile away – was not well-received by attorneys for Audubon.
“I hate to be the fly in the ointment,” said Audubon attorney Thomas Bishop. “It is a matter of neutral ground.”
But Audubon relented and the metal roof in the in the hearing room rattled as the wind blew. There was also the matter of raising and lowering a garage door to access the hearing room.
The hearing, expected to last 2 weeks, will resume Wednesday at the South Florida Water Management District.