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Business And Environmental Groups Happy With Everglades-Restoration Bill

Should the byproduct of coal power plants be classified as a hazardous material? Do environmentalists and the farming industry agree on Everglades restoration? The Florida Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee looked into those questions Thursday.

Senator Wilton Simpson (R-New Port Richey) had a busy day in the Committee. He introduced two bills garnering lots of talk. The first defines the byproduct of coal burning power plants – known commonly as coal ash – as a non-hazardous material. Florida law prohibits hazardous waste sites in the state. But under the bill, billions could be saved, if coal ash is no longer required to be shipped out of the state for disposal. The measure also  defines the "beneficial uses" of coal ash as a legal substitute for other, more expensive, materials for filling roads, sidewalks or around pipes.* That might not sound like a half-bad of idea and certainly a good way to save some cash. But ask pediatrician Yolanda White, who drove down from Atlanta, Ga., and then there’s some contention.

“Coal ash contains the most concentrated amounts of lead, arsenic, mercury, cadmium, radioactive materials. These are the worse toxins on earth. These toxins are persistent and non-biodegradable wreaking havoc on just about every single organ in our body,” White said.

Though groups like Florida Electric Power Coordinating Group and Progress Energy were quick to point out levels of such toxins are actually quite low. Part of the the bill, they said, requires encapsulating the coal ash underground and far away from groundwater, surface water, and wetlands.

Mike Kennedy with Progress Energy said, the goal is turning one man’s trash into another man’s treasure.

“The objective here is to continue to do in Florida what we have been able to do responsibly with the use of these materials which is a great success story of recycling,” Kennedy said.

The bill passed unanimously.

Simpson’s second bill on Thursday didn’t draw nearly the same amount of contention. The Everglades Long-Term plan brought together members from environmental groups like Audubon Florida and the Everglades Foundation with the Florida Farm Bureau and the Florida Sugar Cane League. Or as Senator Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) put it…

“I would have never thought that I would have lived long enough to see all these disparate groups stand up in a meeting and all agree to one set of laws here,” Latvala said.

That bill is something of an extension of the existing Everglades Restoration plans. Under the current plan, farmers in the Everglades Agricultural Area are taxed $35 per acre to pay for the restoration. But using Best Management Practices – or BMPs – to lower pollution outputs gets farms a $10 discount, bringing that number to $25 an acre.

Simpson’s revised plan extends the $25 tax cut to the year 2026 and requires the BMPs to be used.

It wasn’t all kumbaya in the committee, though. Buster Bevis with Associated Industries of Florida said the group will go along with the bill, but with reservations.

“We could vehemently oppose any increase to that tax and we believe it should be phased out. Ladies and gentlemen, we see the end of the Everglades restoration in the horizon and we believe this bill will take us those final few steps to cross the finish line,” Bevis said.

The tax will gradually go down, although the bill does not allow for a complete phase-out. In 2027, the per-acre cost will go down to $20 dollars, then down to $15 in 2030.

*Clarification: This story was changed to further explain what SB 682 does.