Gov. Ron DeSantis last week told state scientists and engineers to get busy and find a way to close the Piney Point phosphate reservoir.
That, of course, is the site where a compromised retention pond nearly ruptured two weeks ago. That could have created an ecological disaster.
Florida is a world leader in the mining of phosphate, which is used to make fertilizer. As Piney Point showed though, what’s left behind after the processing could create a catastrophe.
Residents near the reservoir got off with just a bullet whizzing past their collective ears. In times of crisis, though, you take what you can get.
Once the immediate crisis passes, it’s time to think about the best way to keep it from happening again. That’s why the Governor should widen his net and tell those same scientists and engineers to stay on the job until all 25 gypsum stacks in the state are gone.
“These (are) massive piles of hazardous waste that sit in perpetuity on our landscape,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida Director of the Center for Biological Diversity, told WFTS-TV in the Tampa Bay area.
“They can be hundreds of acres wide, hundreds of feet tall. And they are made out of phosphogypsum, which is the radioactive waste that is created in making phosphoric acid, which is principally used in fertilizer.”
A dozen of those ecological time bombs are in Polk County. That’s where the New Wales gypsum stack sent more than 200 million gallons of polluted water into the aquifer after a sinkhole opened there.
Hillsborough and Manatee counties have a combined 10 stacks.
DeSantis targeted the Everglades cleanup and restoration early in his term. Dealing once and for all with these hideous gypsum stacks could cement his legacy for decades to come.
But on to our weekly game of Winners and Losers.
Honorable mention: Lakeland. That charming Polk County city received $42.9 million of an overall $150 million resiliency fund. That money will help cities around the state build resilient infrastructure better equipped to handle major storms.
At a news conference Friday, DeSantis called Lakeland’s share the “big enchilada.”
It’s not unusual for Lakeland to be on the business end of severe weather. The money should improve, as Florida Politics reported, everything from design and dredging to remediation and mitigation.
“It’s a big win for the community and also for Polk County as a whole,” DeSantis said.
Almost (but not quite) biggest winner: Florida seniors. Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan and Democrat Ted Deutch teamed up for a rare bit of bipartisanship in Washington.
The Seniors Fraud Protection Act was rolled into a larger anti-fraud bill, the Fraud and Scam Reduction Act (HR 1215). Last Tuesday, the House approved it 396-13.
“Seniors are often the biggest targets for scammers trying to confuse and cheat them to give up money and personal information. We need a stronger federal effort to track, target, and warn against these fraudulent schemes,” Deutch said.
“This bill will strengthen important consumer protections to help seniors protect their assets.”
The bill would create an office within the Federal Trade Commission to track scams, along with educating and alerting seniors to new scams. It aims to streamline a system to deal with fraud complaints.
The FBI estimates scams targeting seniors cost more than $3 billion annually.
“This is an important safeguard for seniors who have worked their entire lives with the promise of a safe and secure retirement,” Buchanan said. “Unfortunately, criminals are taking advantage of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and working overtime to target them. Scams targeting the elderly threaten more than retirement accounts — they imperil the independence and trust of an already vulnerable community.”
The biggest winner: DeSantis. Florida’s Governor had a good week.
Besides Piney Point, noted above, DeSantis also scored a major legislative victory when the Senate passed his controversial “anti-riot bill.” That was one of the Governor’s signature issues this spring, but not everyone agreed. Critics blasted it as unnecessary and possibly racist in the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.
DeSantis hung firm, though.
“With the passage of HB 1, the Florida Legislature has answered Governor DeSantis’ call to uphold the rights of our state’s residents while protecting businesses and supporting our brave men and women in law enforcement,” Cody McCloud, press secretary for DeSantis, said in a written statement.
As if that wasn’t enough, DeSantis could be a strong candidate for President, should former President Donald Trump decide not to run in 2024.
Politico reported that “one evening in February, Ron DeSantis quietly slipped into the luxurious Charleston Place Hotel in South Carolina.”
“Over dinner, the Florida Governor addressed an audience of deep-pocketed donors convened by the influential Bradley Foundation, an organization that funnels cash to right-leaning nonprofit groups. DeSantis, whose attendance has not been previously reported, held forth for nearly an hour, detailing the anti-lockdown approach to the coronavirus pandemic that’s turned him into a conservative hero and propelled him to the upper echelon of potential 2024 GOP hopefuls.”
Dishonorable mention: Orlando Sentinel. We’re not blaming the Sentinel for coverage or anything like that. What happened to put a fine newspaper in this spot is out of worker bees’ control.
But the Sentinel is part of the Tribune Publishing national chain and, as the Baltimore Sun reported, the Tribune board still favors a buyout bid for its papers by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital.
Alden’s $630 million bid is $50 million lower than a tentative offer by Maryland hotel executive Stewart Bainum Jr.
Alden earned a reputation for destroying newspapers.
A Washington Post story noted, “The tactics employed by Alden and Digital First Media are well-chronicled: They buy newspapers already in financial distress, including big-city dailies such as the San Jose Mercury News and the Denver Post, reap the cash flow and lay off editors, reporters and photographers to boost profits.”
Alden generally appears more interested in acquiring the real estate newspaper plants occupy. The actual newspaper product appears to be of little interest to the company. It has been called, “the face of bloodless strip-mining of American newspapers and their communities.”
In 2018, the staff of The Denver Post published a special opinion section that ripped the ownership group for its slash-and-burn management style. An editorial in the paper called Alden “vulture capitalists.”
Almost (but not quite) biggest loser: Corporate money. Well, say this for House Speaker Chris Sprowls — he won’t be intimidated. In pushing through a highly contentious bill about transgender women and girls, Sprowls essentially spit in the eye of companies and organizations like the NCAA.
The House on Wednesday passed HB 1475, designed to prohibit transgender women and girls from competing on female sports teams. Lawmakers are also advancing HB 7041, a bill to tighten Florida’s election laws.
Both measures almost invite economic retaliation from large corporations. In Georgia, for instance, Major League Baseball pulled its All-Star Game out of Atlanta in retaliation for that state’s new restrictive voter law.
Critics say the law targets minority voters. They’re saying the same thing about these Florida bills.
“I certainly couldn’t care less, I really couldn’t,” Sprowls told reporters after the House passed the transgender sports bill. “I think that this is now a movement that you’re seeing in corporate America that, whether it’s the NCAA today or it might be someone tomorrow, that we’re going to use our corporate largess to bully the state.”
Florida has hosted multiple NCAA events. That list includes the Women’s Final Four, staged three times in Tampa, with a fourth scheduled for 2025.
In 2017, Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium hosted the college football national championship game.
Usually, these events bring large amounts of money to cities and their associated services. The threat always is to do what they want so a city can keep its place at the table.
Sprowls, well … you know what he said.
The biggest loser: Richard Corcoran. COVID-19 cases are increasing in Florida (and many other places). The Florida Department of Health Tuesday reported 9,068 additional virus cases.
That’s the highest one-day increase since Feb. 5.
That makes the pronouncement by Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran all the more bizarre.
In a memo to public school district superintendents, Corcoran recommended they drop the mandatory mask requirements for the 2021-22 academic year.
Corcoran’s memo said, “they serve no remaining good at this point in our schools.”
Seriously? How does anyone know at this early date what things will look like in August?
Hey, while we wait, let’s ask the opinion of people who actually studied this stuff in college. They have wide agreement that masks make a big difference in safety. John V. Williams, a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, answered it this way.
“There isn’t really a lot of evidence for six feet versus three feet, and the masks are much more important than the distance,” he told the New York Times. “Three feet would allow much more capacity in schools.”
To give Corcoran his due, the good commish won the day with his battle to reopen schools for in-person learning. Fears of an apocalyptic virus rampage through classrooms never happened.
But what’s the benefit of telling schools now they shouldn’t require masks when they return?
That seems like a foolish move from someone high on legislative adrenaline.