Sugar Firms Asked to Pay For Everglades Damage

Progress seen on effort to save `River of Grass' but issue unresolved

THE decade-long fight to save the Florida Everglades has taken two new twists involving what environmentalists say is a chief culprit.

Both involve ``Big Sugar,'' the main industry impacting the quality of water feeding the unique and troubled Everglades ecosystem.

* Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt last week announced an agreement with Flo-Sun Inc. - one of the state's largest sugar producers - under which the firm will pay some $100 million over 20 years to help meet water-quality standards. Flo-Sun also agreed to stop supporting sugar-industry lawsuits aimed at blocking federal and state government plans for Everglades recovery.

* Meanwhile, Floridians are being asked to support a ``make the polluter pay'' ballot initiative imposing a penny-per-pound tax on Florida-produced raw sugar in the next 25 years. Supporters say the proposed amendment to the state constitution would raise $35 million a year for restoration.

But the Everglades's future involves quantity and timing of water flow and pollution, and here problems may be more difficult. Decisions to promote agriculture, housing, and other development in southeastern Florida over the years - and protect newcomers from hurricanes - have meant channeling water through hundreds of miles of canals.

This massive effort - most of it courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers - has disrupted the famed ``River of Grass'' to the detriment of an ecosystem that is home to 16 endangered species. In the last year or so, however, environmentalists have been pleased by a reversal of policy in which the Corps has begun to restore natural water flows.

``These guys are working in the right direction,'' says Tom Martin, head of the National Audubon Society's Everglades campaign. ``They have a multifaceted agenda, and they're clearly making progress on it.''

Corps officials made a presentation to the Everglades Coalition, a band of environmental groups, meeting in Florida last weekend. ``They were greeted with remarkable warmth,'' Mr. Martin says.

BUT environmentalists are less pleased by the Flo-Sun deal. ``Our fundamental concern ... is that it might get in the way of larger goals,'' says Jim Webb, Wilderness Society regional director. ``The main question is: `Where's the water going to come from?' ''

But for George Frampton, a former Wilderness Society president and now the Clinton administration's assistant interior secretary, the agreement is ``proof that industry can become a partner with the federal government.''

The move is in line with other steps the administration took in the past year - with the Northwest and Southeast timber industries and southern California developers, for example - in which compromise is sought between competing interests to avoid exhaustive, costly court battles.

``While $100 million is tough medicine, we know it's the right thing to do,'' said Flo-Sun vice president Jorge Dominicis. ``We just felt it was about time someone took a step toward beginning the process of restoring the Everglades.''

The administration is counting on the Flo-Sun deal to prompt other big sugar firms to follow suit or face consequences. Administration officials are ready, Mr. Frampton says, ``to redouble our litigation and regulatory efforts against those who are unwilling to join in such an agreement.'' He noted that U.S. Sugar, the other major producer, has so far refused.

The problem with sugar farming is that the chemicals used - principally phosphorous - disrupt the natural chemistry and biology of marshland, causing native plants to be crowded out by cattails. Resolving the problem will entail new water-treatment facilities and taking some acreage out of production.

Gov. Lawton Chiles (D) of Florida last week pointed to ``substantial progress in protecting and restoring the Everglades ecosystem.'' For example, some 326,000 acres have been acquired for parks, preserves, and wildlife refuges.

But a broad ``statement of principles'' on Everglades protection, agreed to by the Clinton administration and sugar industry last summer, fell apart last month when a draft plan by government scientists advised stricter environmental protections than the industry would accept. The statement, which environmentalists said didn't go far enough and which sugar-industry officials said had been undercut by the federal government's ``bad faith,'' was supposed to end legal battles.

But that wasn't the case despite the Flo-Sun agreement, and observers expect the process of restoration to go on for some time. Says Governor Chiles: ``It would be unrealistic to expect that the extensive damage of the century could be corrected in 10 years.''

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