Updated: With comment from Rick Scott.
Discussion of algal blooms on the Caloosahatchee River took a decidedly political turn at a roundtable hosted by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in North Fort Myers.
Braced for a tight re-election fight where he faces a challenge from Republican Gov. Rick Scott, the three-term senator put the onus of the green-algae problem on poor state leadership.
“Rick Scott has systematically dismembered the environmental agencies of the state of Florida over the last eight years,” Nelson said.
Specifically, Nelson called out the defunding of Florida Forever dollars and a change in law requiring fewer inspections on septic tanks for contributing to pollution in Lake Okeechobee.
Participants in the roundtable, held at Three Fisherman Seafood Restaurant overlooking the river, gave similarly partisan assessments of the environment. John Scott, Sierra Club Calusa Group chairman, read off a list of Scott sins against the Everglades that included turning the Department of Environmental Protection into a “polluter hand-holding” agency.
But not everyone at the panel came in a partisan capacity. Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello, also a part of the roundtable discussion, stressed residents needed answers from all leaders.
“You’ve been in the system,” he said. “What’s slowing it down? And what are solutions to get us where we are going?”
On that, Nelson stressed that problems with green algae come from decades of mistakes in the past, noting a 50-year era from the ‘20s to the ‘80s where the primary focus around Lake Okeechobee was preventing the flooding of homes rather than preserving the natural flow of water.
Nelson said the problem would not be fixed overnight.
But the senator did call on a re-evaluation of water discharges from the lake.
“This has gotten so bad,” Nelson said, “and it’s only going to continue unless policies are immediately reversed.”
The conversation also tilted toward health care. There, Dr. Parisima Taeb, the Democrat challenge state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen in House District 78, spun algae as a health problem, causing asthma problems today and potentially late-stage liver disease problems in the future.
“State leadership refusing to accept funds to expand Medicaid should be part of the conversation,” Taeb said.
Nelson also connected Scott’s support from oil companies to the issue. “Yesterday my opponent was in Oklahoma having a fundraiser with the oil and gas boys,” Nelson told Florida Politics. “It’s the oil and gas boys that keep trying to drill off this coast.”
Nelson noted early that the roundtable was part of a campaign event, unlike earlier town halls he’d held in Southwest Florida organized by his Senate office. But will turning algae into a partisan fight make it more difficult to address it regardless of whether he returns to Washington?
Nelson isn’t concerned.
“I get along with my colleague Sen. [Marco] Rubio,” Nelson said. “I think it’s telling that Marco, when asked by the press, ‘Are you going to campaign against Sen. Bill Nelson,’ he said, ‘I will not campaign against Bill Nelson.’ He is my partner in the Senate. I think that tells you something about my bipartisanship.”
Gov. Scott responded to Florida Politics later to the charges leveled by Scott:
“When Bill Nelson repeatedly failed to step up, it was Governor Scott who secured state funding for Lake Okeechobee, supported legislation to accelerate the EAA reservoir, and now secured funding through the Army Corps of Engineers,” reads a statement from Scott’s Senate campaign.
“It’s absurd for Nelson to say that a bill that was overwhelmingly passed by the legislature only six years ago to save homeowners money is somehow responsible for a problem that has lasted for generations. Additionally, under Governor Scott’s leadership, Florida established the most comprehensive nutrient pollution standards in the nation and became the first state to adopt complete nutrient standards protecting all lakes, rivers, streams, springs and estuaries.”