Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Making history at the March Against Lake Okeechobee Discharges

Two thousand activists from coastal areas devastated by Lake Okeechobee discharges last year gathered at the 2nd Annual SAVE OUR RIVER CLEAN WATER RALLY in Stuart on Sunday to voice their concerns and propose solutions. 

Rally attendees sent a strong message to Tallahassee: We are every summer just one tropical storm away from a repeat of 2013, and we refuse to accept excuses for inaction.  Last year, massive discharges into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers devastated coastal estuaries, spurring thousands of residents to protest. This summer's rally, before any harmful Lake O discharges have seriously impacted the estuaries, shows the extent and depth of this new expanded grassroots movement.

The crowd included speakers and supporters from a long list of organizations:  Citizens 4 Clean Water, Indian Riverkeeper, Rivers Coalition, Florida Oceanographic Society, Earthjustice, Arthur R, Marshall Foundation, Save the Manatee Club, Martin Memorial Hospital, Sierra Club, Audubon Florida, Love the Everglades, River Kidz and more.  


Floridians Flood Public Service Commission, Demand Clean Energy Savings

Two weeks ago, more than 100 members of the Sunshine State Clean Energy Coalition descended upon the Public Service Commission (PSC) hearing in Tallahassee as it reviewed energy companies' request to reduce efficiency standards. The Coalition called on state regulators rather to strengthen, not weaken, energy efficiency programs to save consumers money on their power bills, create jobs and promote cleaner air.
Members of the Coalition held its "Rally for Energy Savings" outside the PSC hearing because inside the public was barred from speaking on the issue of how Floridians' energy needs are met over the next 10 years.
Rep. Dwight Dudley telling the PSC to open the hearing
to comments from the public.
In remarks just before the hearing opened, State Representative Dwight Dudley echoed the sentiments of the ralliers: "The name Public Service Commission includes the public,” he said. “The public should be heard on this, not hurt. Right now, they're about ready to get hurt.”
Said Ennis Leon Jacobs, past chairman of the Public Service Commission: “Increasing energy savings is a business opportunity and Florida is ready to take advantage. Big utility companies like Duke, TECO and FP&L should be bending over backward to help boost Florida’s economy. They can start by bringing their energy savings programs to industry standards this year.”
Bill Bucolo, President of the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida and a leader of the Coalition, called on the commissioners to reject the companies’ request to slash energy savings programs. Duke Energy, Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light have proposed to gut their energy-saving goals by 93 percent. 
Currently, none of Florida’s major utility companies meet national industry standards for energy savings programs, meaning Florida consumers are missing out on savings that people living in other states enjoy. Duke Energy Florida, part of the nation’s largest electric company, has significantly weaker energy savings programs in the Sunshine State than in North and South Carolina and Ohio.
“Duke Energy is saving their customers in Ohio, North Carolina and South Carolina money through good energy efficiency programs, but they’re not doing the same for their customers in Florida. Florida consumers should get the same opportunities and benefits as Duke customers elsewhere,” said Kelly Martin, senior campaign representative with Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. 
Ralliers also heard from Susan Glickman, Florida Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund and Kim Ross, President of ReThink Energy Florida. also spoke out against the utilities' attempt to undermine their ratepayers and the people of Florida.

Take Action:

Press coverage of  the rally and hearing: Tampa Bay Times:

-- Tim Heberlein, Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign

Palm Beach denies development permit in Western Palm Beach County

By Drew Martin, Conservation Chair, Loxahatchee Group

Last week, Palm Beach County voted to stop industrial development from spreading west into agricultural land after the Sierra Club Loxahatchee Group and others opposed a plan by rock mining company Palm Beach Aggregates. Agriculture has been a driving economic force and a development buffer in Palm Beach County. The County has issued $150 million in bonds to protect its "Agricultural Reserve" and buy areas to be preserved as natural areas and open space.  The proposed development changes were not in the Agricultural Reserve, but the change of status would create a precedent of rezoning agricultural land for industrial use thus threatening other agricultural areas.

L8 Reservoir  Photo:
During the last 20 years, Palm Beach County has proceeded to move development further west into rural and agricultural areas.  Despite protections for agriculture, the Board of County Commissioners has repeatedly changed the Comprehensive Plan to open new areas to large scale development.

In the latest push involving west of the L8 Canal and west of Wellington, Palm Beach Aggregates  had agreed to give up development rights on the property for a 2,000-home development on the east side of the canal.  After selling that property on the east side it immediately came back and attempted to break the agreement asking for development on the west side of the canal.

Palm Beach County officials noted that the developer had just agreed to the 2,000 homes and to not move forward with a request to develop on the west side of the canal.  Within a month the company was back asking for new changes to the counties development plant, and to transmit to the state a request to change the development status of the property on the west side of the canal to allow 142 acres for industrial use.

The tragedy is that before rock mining this area was a Cypress Forest holding water and protecting wildlife. It was proposed to be used as a wildlife corridor and sits north of the Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge.  It has now been turned into deep open rock pits.  One is the L-8 Reservoir that was purchased by the South Florida Water Management District intended to store water for the Everglades. An industrial site near the L-8 canal could lead to industrial chemicals polluting the Everglades Ecosystem.  Further, pollution from industrial activity could pollute nearby water storage and agricultural areas. The county needs to protect its agriculture and natural areas. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Hillsborough Moves Forward to Clean, Green Transportation Options

Hillsborough's new express bus, the MetroRapid: a start
towards a convenient countywide bus system. 
After decades of delay in investing in cleaner transit options that would give residents and visitors a choice between driving and taking a bus, train, bike or their feet to their destination, Tampa Bay is finally moving ahead to end its dubious distinction as the only metropolitan area in the U.S. where virtually everyone must own and drive a car for every trip. The area is also America's 2nd riskiest place, next to Orlando, to walk down the street or ride a bike.

Why is this so important from an environmental standpoint? 70% of the oil we use goes to transportation. Hillsborough’s extreme dependence on cars for transportation results in over half of its smog coming from our tailpipes, a significant difference from most of America, where coal-fired power plants produce up to ¾ of smog and carbon emitted in cities that offer cleaner transit options. Here in Tampa Bay, it’s just as important to move beyond our use of oil for transportation as it is to stop using coal for energy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now considering updated protections from dangerous smog (ground-level ozone) pollution. Health experts, epidemiologists, and numerous medical organizations have clearly stated that the existing Bush-era standard of 75 parts per billion (ppb) is not adequate to protect public health, particularly vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly and those with breathing ailments like asthma. These same experts report that smog pollution at levels as low as 55 or 60ppb can trigger asthma attacks and send children to the hospital.
We have too many days like this. 

Hillsborough County annually gets an “F” grade from the American Lung Association for having the largest number of days each year when our Florida sunshine converts local tailpipe emissions into levels of smog that far exceed the current 75 ppb standard, smog levels hazardous for our 1 in 10 kids who suffer with asthma, as well as seniors with COPD. This air pollution usually ignores county lines to make breathing difficult for millions in the region.

In Pinellas County, thanks in large part to support from the Suncoast Sierra Club, the Greenlight Pinellas plan will create dramatic improvements in bus service and a light rail system between major employment centers in Clearwater, St. Petersburg and the Gateway area, just across a new I-275 bridge built to handle rail. Pinellas residents vote Nov. 4 on whether to move forward.

Across the bay in Hillsborough, Sierra Club and allies Connect Tampa Bay and FCAN have succeeded in organizing support for creating such new options there. In the past year, residents have made it clear they want the same freedom to choose such options. As a result of our coalition’s work, we have gone from pessimism that we could ever try again to get voter approval after the defeat of the 2010 ballot referendum, to a commitment by the Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill to move to a 2016 vote to invest in a new transit system.

Instead of unveiling the plan to county leaders at the same August 12th meeting where the commission and mayors would vote to approve, Connect Tampa Bay’s public records request forced Merrill to release plans two weeks early so that the public could see them in advance. Here they are:

While plans are still in a formative stage, with a 1 cent sales tax that would raise over $6 Billion for transportation, the County might invest in:
  •          “premium transit” (light rail, rapid bus transit, ferry), anywhere from 35% to 52%,
  •          bus service, from 13% - 18%
  •          road improvements (intersections, roadways, technology, bridges, repaving: 32-44% of the total, of which 6-8% is for sidewalks and trails to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

While today the Tampa Bay Times has slammed this draft plan as " ... a data dump that compiles road and mass transit projects that various agencies have had on their wish lists for years.", the plan's creation of new transit options and investment in safer, complete streets is to be applauded, even though it doesn't specify an investment in the "cycle track" approach of bike lanes with physical barriers to protect cyclists from cars. 

What remains to be seen is if this plan will match the proportions of 75% for transit and 25% for roads that comprised the 2010 proposal. We can reach that goal and give everyone the opportunity to use cleaner forms of transportation with an emphasis on investment in the options we now lack. 

Some still doubt that residents here really want what the rest of America already takes for granted: the right to choose to get around sometimes by means other than a car. A limited public outreach effort last year and County poll confirmed that people here do have a strong desire for new clean options. If Hillsborough County moves forward now with a robust, extensive process of asking citizens what they want, the County's plan will reflect the people's desire for a new green transportation system that gets 75% of new transportation funds. 

With a commitment to public engagement, Hillsborough County can solve its our biggest economic, environmental and public health problem. Sierra Club’s Florida Healthy Air Campaign will be involved to help make sure the public gets its say.

Phil Compton, Regional Organizing Representative
Sierra Club National Beyond Oil & Florida Healthy Air Campaign
1990 Central Avenue    St. Petersburg, FL 33712
office: 727-824-8813, ext. 303