WASHINGTON — FIVE months after sugar companies agreed with environmentalists and the federal government to try to stop pollution that's destroying the Everglades - Florida's unique river of grass - the deal has collapsed.
``It looks like a collapse - we have no schedule in mind to open negotiations again,'' said Bonnie Cohen, assistant secretary of the Interior for policy management and budget. ``We will report to the state court Jan. 7. The Clinton administration has a serious commitment to this ecosystem.''
She said the talks collapsed because the sugar firms ``demanded a 20-year immunity from further federal intervention in agricultural methods - something we could not grant. The outrage is that any nickel will be spent in court instead of for the cleanup.''
The plan under discussion would have set aside 35,000 acres as an artificial wetland in which phosphates would settle out of the runoff from sugar-cane fields into Everglades National Park.
U.S. Sugar Corporation Executive Vice President Jim Terrill blamed collapse of the pact - which would have cost sugar companies from $200 to $322 million - on the federal government: ``At the 11th hour, they put out a [new] draft plan to turn our agricultural land into a swamp - they folded to the pressure of environmentalists who want to put us out of business.''
This new draft plan was prepared by a scientific task force from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and four other federal agencies. Of the 450,000 acres under cane cultivation, some 195,000 acres would be permanently flooded and the remainder flooded for 60 percent of the time, Mr. Terrill said.
For decades, the Florida Everglades and its alligators, wading birds, and other rare wildlife have been in a steady decline. In 1988, the United States attorney in Miami filed a lawsuit against Florida and the Water District for damaging the Everglades. Sugar companies have fought the issue ever since.
The giant plumbing system of canals installed by the Army Corps of Engineers in early 1900s drained huge tracts of swamp: Around Lake Okeechobee, the land went for sugar, cattle, and vegetables; around Ft. Lauderdale and Miami, the land went to sprawling suburbs; further south are orchards of mango, avocado, and lime.
The phosphates in runoff from cane and cattle farms upset the delicate, nutrient-poor ecology of the Everglades, which once extended from Lake Okeechobee to the tip of Florida. Phosphates nourish cattails, which are replacing the sawgrass, crowding out wildlife, and blocking sunlight from the algae at the base of the food chain.
The cycles of nature are upset by decisions made by the South Florida Water Management District - largely on behalf of farmers. By holding back water in dry times, wading birds' nests are left dry, making them prey to raccoons. By releasing excess water in heavy rains, baby alligators are flooded out.
`THE real problem of the Everglades is the fragmentation of authority - it's too easy to just say it's due to big sugar as the classic black hat,'' said Dewitt John Jr., author of a recent study of sugar and the Everglades.
Still, Mr. John sees progress: The sugar companies agreed in July to create the artificial wetlands and to study replumbing the area so more rainwater would head south, instead of East into the Atlantic. This would nourish the Everglades and might help Florida Bay where a mysterious bloom of red algae has been spreading, leaving vast tracts devoid of aquatic life. Some scientists ascribe this to the lack of fresh water coming via the Everglades.
John says the release of the draft scientific report that proposed flooding huge agricultural tracts, just days before the accord's conclusion with sugar and other farmers, was a public relations disaster. ``It scared the sugar industry and suggested a much more aggressive approach'' by the federal government to protect and restore the Everglades ecosystem.