Bill Nelson sharpens algae talks with partisan edge, Rick Scott responds

Parisima Taeb and Bill Nelson

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.”

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].

One comment

  • Donna

    July 24, 2018 at 11:10 am

    The bottom line is the big farm sugar has been here since the 1930s. It is noted in a posted blogger that to farm in south Florida specifically sugar is very hard thing to keep and grow. Tons of phosphorous and other chemicals poured to keep the farms going. And then, they have to clean and recycle the water by using the natural lakes in south Florida. In recent years, added to this is the government had taken some of its engineering to disrupt the natural Lake O water flows to run from the west coast to the east coast rather than its natural flow from Lake O to southern parts to the Everglades. They are redirecting water. I am an original Floridian and have moved back after many years. My family loves to fish and I am so disheartened to see how the Governor and city managers have mislead the people (Floridians) of this great state. This is God’s country and when you m don’t take care of your people and the land that eventually it will come full circle, which it is now after years of neglect stretching from Lake Okeechobee. My grandfather would say lets go for a ride (safari), we would drive to Lake O in the 80s — we will as Floridians fight for preservation with great respect to Gods great creation. This article is off base by its content…septic tanks have nothing to do with this mess in how the water flow contributes to the natural flow of how this great state is an environmental diamond in the rough. What is the old saying is that you cannot mess with nature, well they have been doing this for decades and now we have algae and red tide. As a young girl growing up in the state of Florida and visiting my grandmother every summer that I will see the state turn a positive corner for its wonderful natural ecosystems. Florida will regain its common sense by defending its natural wonders this election.

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