Is The Latest Piney Point Leak Really An ‘Anomaly’?

If you have been following the saga of the efforts to belatedly deal with the environmental impact of the problem-plagued gypsum stack at the former Piney Point fertilizer plant in Manatee County, you keep reading references to the occasional leaks of toxic, polluted water into nearby public waters as an “anomaly.”

An anomaly is defined “something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected.”

You might wonder whether that definition applies here.

The reason a team of scientists hired by a court-appointed receiver working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is dealing with the leak is that the stack continues to leak.

This is not surprising. The fertilizer plant it served was built in 1966 before Florida had any real environmental regulations. It was abandoned in 2001 by Mulberry Phosphates (nee Royster Guano Company etc.), the same company that owned the stack that leaked 56 million gallons acidic waste into a tributary of the Alafia River in 1997, killing everything from Mulberry to Tampa Bay.

After the plant was abandoned, it eventually ended up in the hands of DEP officials, who did nothing to close it and eliminate the potential environmental harm. Neither did the private company HRK Holdings, which was the subsequent owner and now has declared bankruptcy.

The issue came to a head last March when water began leaking, resulting in a decision to pump 200 million gallons of polluted water from the stack into Tampa Bay to prevent a catastrophic spill.

The current plan involves treating the remaining polluted water in the stacks to remove the most serious contaminants before injecting the wastewater deep underground.

That is not scheduled to occur until next fall.

In the meantime, another annual hurricane season will occur with the potential for heavy rains and high winds that could threaten this aging facility.

If there is another spill, it won’t be an anomaly.



It is Time To Call It The Heartland Headwaters Exploitation Act

It’s time for some honesty about the goal of the true purpose of the 2017 so-called Heartland Headwaters Protection and Sustainability Act.

Action in the Florida Senate this week appropriated $20 million from the fund that is supposed to pay for conservation land purchases to implement the act, but it was clear from the staff analysis that this is not an environmental appropriation, but a subsidy to the development lobby to help to finance water supply projects to continue business as usual.

Sierra Club of Florida opposed the bill., which is sponsored by Sen. Danny Burgess, a member of the Polk legislative delegation. The House companion bill is sponsored by Rep. Melony Bell, another Polk legislator.

The money could be used to help to finance the Polk County Regional Water Cooperative’s planned Lower Floridan Aquifer wells at the edge of the Green Swamp Area of Critical State Concern or water storage projects along the Upper Peace River Basin. The legislation is so vague it could allow a multitude of projects that have nothing to do with land conservation.

The proper spending of the land conservation funding is still the subject of litigation, though you would not know this from reading the bill’s staff analysis.

The latest court ruling oddly ruled that the complaints by environmentalists are irrelevant because the Legislature already misspent the first potential appropriation of the money in the year after the authorizing constitutional amendment passed. That ignores an earlier court decision that correctly ruled that there isn’t much anyone can do about past budget decisions. Instead, the focus should be on future misappropriations.

That analysis ignores the fact that the 2014 constitutional amendment approved overwhelmingly by Florida voters called for appropriating the money annually through 2035.

This bill and this week’s votes doesn’t protect anything except the interests of the development community and is another example of how the Florida Legislature continues to thumb its nose at the public.




Florida Not Alone In Corporate Push For Solar Tax

As the Florida legislators consider a bill reportedly written by Florida Power & Light that could reduce or eliminate incentives for installing rooftop solar. It seems this is part of a large offensive by commercial electric utilities.

A similar effort is under way in California, affecting 1.3 million rooftop solar facilities and the current net metering rules.

Net metering allows residents and businesses that generate their own solar power to sell any excess power they generate back to the utility at a market rate. This produces a good return on investment in addition to reducing the demand on the local electric grid.

The utilities’ argument, which is actually contained in the Florida bill, is that all of these rooftop solar units are operating at the expense of other electric customers. The solar energy disputes that claim, citing studies that concluded the effect of rooftop solar is minimal.

To “fix” this situation, they have proposed asking utility regulators to reduce the payback for extra solar power and to even levy a so-called “grid-maintenance charge” for not using the grid as much as everyone else.

In a column in today’s New York Times, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appropriately terms these proposals a “solar tax.”

If approved, the measure would affect more than 100,000 rooftop solar owners in Florida.

This is not a brand new effort.

The electric utilities tried to sneak this proposal into the Florida Constitution in 2016 by fooling voters into believing it would give them the right to install solar panels even though there was no restriction on solar panel construction at the time.

The deception worked. The proposal received a narrow majority of the vote, but not the 60 percent required for approval.

Ironically, the 60 percent threshold was added to thwart grassroots initiatives that legislators didn’t’ like, not corporate initiatives that they typically favor.



More Commerical Solar Proposed In East Polk As Legislators Consider Bill That Could Harm Rooftop Solar Growth

Tampa Electric is seeking to develop a new solar farm on a 37-acre parcel northeast of Lake Mabel in the rapidly-developing former agricultural lands as Lake Wales and Dundee aggressively annex land in the Scenic Highway corridor.

If the project proceeds it would augment the 236 megawatts of solar TECO already is operating in Polk and to other projects that have been approved, but are not completed yet.

These projects provide enough green energy to supply tens of thousands of homes.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of homes and businesses have installed their own solar panels to reduce their carbon footprints and to take advantage of the potential return on investment that comes with the ability under current state law to sell excess power they generate to local electric utilities.

But there may be a catch.

That is because of proposed legislation being considered by the Florida Legislature this year at the behest of Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility.

The bill’s intent seems to be the same as a constitutional amendment the utilities tried to sneak past voters in 2016.

Under the proposed legislation, the Florida Public Service Commission, which is the panel that rules on rate increase requests, would be directed to consider changes in the rates utilities would be required to pay rooftop solar users

There is a concern that PSC could side with utilities, who make a disputed claim that the current rates subsidize customers with rooftop solar at the expense of other customers. That could result in lower rates for rooftop owners, which could increase the time it takes to get a return on their investment for solar panel insallations. That, opponents of the legislation argue, could discourage people from installing their own solar panels and cripple the growing solar industry in Florida.



Proposed Bills May Threaten Future Of Rooftop Solar

The growing popularity of rootop solar for homes and businesses is reportedly drawing a backlash from investor-owned electric companies.

Two bills (SB 1024, HB 741) proposed in this year’s session of the Florida Legislation, which opens this week, may make rooftop solar less economically feasible by allowing utilities to seek to refigure how they handle net metering rates.

Net metering , which dates in 2008 in Florida in connection with green energy initiatives, involves the ability of those who own or lease solar facilities to sell any power they generate but do not use back to the utility.

The bills, which news reports document were written by Florida Power & Light lobbyists, would direct the Public Service Commission to draft new rules on net metering with an eye toward entertaining claims by FP&L and other investor-owned utilities that the current rates subsidize customers with solar panels at the expense of other customers. Solar industry officials dispute that claim.

How much or whether the rates would change is unknown. That would be determined by the PSC if the legislation passes and is signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The exposure of the involvement of FP&L, which is Florida’s largest electric utility, by the Miami Herald resulted in complaints from the utility about the story’s fairness, but the utility has not denied its involvement in pushing the legislation.

The first hearing in the Senate will occur Tuesday before the Regulated Industries Committee. Sen Ben Albritton of Wauchula is a member of the committee.

Its first stop in the House is the Tourism Energy and Infrastructure Subcommittee. No legislators from this region sit on that panel.



Polk’s Gateway Plan Was Supposed To Protect Environment and Rural Lands; It Took The Planning Commission To Make It Happen

Last year Ancient Islands Sierra joined the fight to derail a proposal to wrest more development reviews from the Polk County Planning Commission and turn the process over to a hearing officer and to make it more onerous for the public to appeal hearing officer decisions.

The majority of the County Commission agreed with our criticisms and killed the idea.

That decision’s value certainly came into play Wednesday when the Planning Commission was reviewing a proposal to develop a city-sized subdivision proposed to contain more than 1,000 new in a rural area along the Peace Creek Canal east of Bartow under the procedure that planners and some development interests sought to take away from them.

County planners as they almost always do, recommended approval with conditions, but it was clear based on some of the conditions that this proposal was incompatible with surrounding rural homesteads.

The fact that the recommended buffering involved earthworks and a block wall that rose to probably half the height of the wall the islanders used to keep out King Kong was telling.

Then there are the provisions of something called the Gateway Selected Area Plan that dates to 2016.

The plan was supposedly a guide to future development along the State Road 60 corridor between U.S. 27 and the outskirts of Bartow about where this proposed development is located.

However, it was clear Wednesday that the stated policies in the original plan and actual implementation have diverged, seemingly to the detriment of rural residents and environmental features.

It initially did not propose to change land uses in the area, but testimony Wednesday showed that had occurred anyway.

It was also supposed to protect agricultural lands and environmental features such as the Peace Creek Drainage Canal. Although the plan didn’t say this, the protection of the Peace Creek was more important than many people realize. That’s because this section of the waterway was actually a natural stream in the middle of the 19th century, according to historical maps. Other parts of the current system farther from the Peace River were a series of sloughs and other wetlands that were dredged to drain land for agriculture.

But reading the staff report and listening to the applicant’s consultant, you wouldn’t have gotten much of a sense of this.

The development around the creek was discussed in terms of preventing downstream flooding more than preserving natural habitat.

The planned houses were more of the same standard argument about housing shortages and growth pressures rather than whether this was a smart place to build in the first place.

There is a reason the pioneers established Bartow where it is rather than out there.

This brings us back to the value of the Planning Commission.

Sure, the staff report seemed to check all of the right boxes. which may have satisfied the legalistic requirements a hearing officer might be interested in examining.

But the big picture gets lost in that kind of evaluation and the collective thinking of a diverse group can cut through the claims and get to the heart of the matter.

That led the panel to vote unanimously to deny the application.




Florida Conservation Funding Voters Approved In 2014 Suffers Another Setback After Judge Sides With Obstructionist Legislature

Sierra Club and other conservation groups have been in court since 2015 fighting the Florida Legislature’s efforts to ignore the will of the voters to levy state tax money to revive the Florida Forever program to buy more conservation land before it’s gobbled up by new development.

It looks as though environmentalists will be in court awhile longer.

A Leon County judge ruled Monday in favor of the state, concluding the whole issue is moot because legislators already appropriated the money and conservation groups didn’t act quickly enough to stop them.

This is bizarre because judges have already ruled there wasn’t anything that could be done to undo previous budgets approved by the Legislature and the Governor, even if they did misappropriate the money . The issue has always been whether this foolishness should be allowed to continue in future budgets.

In response to the ruling, Sierra Club Florida stated the ruling essentially decided the will of Florida voters is meaningless and if the ruling stands it will allow legislators to continue thumbs their noses at voters and use money supposedly mandated for conservation as a slush fund for whatever they choose.

At stake in this litigation is the spending of an estimated $1 billion a year in land that should go to state and local land conservation programs instead of for pork barrel projects to subsidize the sugar and development industries, Sierra maintains.

“Sierra Club Florida calls on the Legislature to immediately drop their opposition to the lawsuit and get on with the job of protecting the environment and heritage upon which Floridians and the state’s economy depends,” the statement concluded.