Sore spot becomes a scandal

It is well understood now that the buyout of land surrounding Lake Apopka was predicated on land-speculation politics, and the related environmental cleanup projections were based on insufficient science. But Katherine Bouma of the Orlando Sentinel on Sunday advanced the story into the realm of scandal.

Her 2,100-word piece documents the backroom squabbling that attended the environmental assessment, and exposes the St. Johns River Water Management District's lack of candor. The plan to flood the reclaimed farmland is now paralyzed, with wading birds dead by the hundreds -- presumably from the lingering pesticides -- and new fears surfacing on behalf of migrants who worked the land for decades. Most landowners, meanwhile, have taken their money and run with it.

Bouma's story deserves a careful read. The highlights:

• The district allowed farmers to insert clauses in their buyout contracts limiting the cleanup costs to 5 percent or less of the purchase price for their land. That unrealistic number determined all subsequent estimates of cleanup costs.

• A geologist who conducted soil samples says he told district officials not to buy the land because it was too polluted.

• A toxicological consulting firm retained by the district to determine the cleanup plan's impact on wildlife concluded that the flooding would pose a hazard to fish and the birds that ate them.

The private correspondence that Bouma uncovered contrasts markedly with what has been said since birds began to die around the lake in December. For example, Robert Christianson, St. Johns' director of acquisitions, who negotiated the buyout, said any environmental hazards on the sites that were unknown at the time of the sale are the farmers' responsibility. A 5 percent clause could render that claim absurd.


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