Ecological Politics

UM's Larry Brand flouts the grant system, pays the price

In addition to their theories on sugar plantations and nitrogen, Brand and Lapointe have a lot in common. They're both romantics as much as scientists. They met some years before at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, when both did research with aquaculture pioneer John Ryther. Ryther's attempts to turn sewage into food attracted young idealists like Brand and Lapointe. Ryther also did a case study of the impacts of nitrogen and farm runoff to coastal bays in Long Island. Not surprisingly, both Brand and Lapointe ended up in Florida fighting similar battles against some of the same enemies.

Lapointe's critics were many, but the most important was a Florida International University biologist named Ron Jones. Jones is a charismatic, outspoken scientist. Where many of his colleagues hesitate carefully before committing to positions, Jones will take firm, unequivocal stances. He's also media-savvy and understands that pithy quotes sell more than thesis statements. On the estuary question, Jones took the position that sugar plantations weren't to blame. Jones is an expert on nitrogen and says there's no data to prove a causal link between agricultural runoff and coral reef degradation. "I went into this wanting to show that nitrogen was causing the problems," Jones says these days. "But as much as I'd like to have my cake and eat it too, I can't, because the sugar industry is not causing this problem."

It's difficult to contradict him. Jones played a major role in the groundbreaking lawsuit that led to CERP. He testified for the federal government's case against the state of Florida, for allowing sugar plantations to pollute the Everglades with phosphorus. Back then he was on the ecology side, "against business as usual." And at the time, Jones's colleagues warned him that his stance against Big Sugar might put his career at FIU in jeopardy. But after Jones's side won the case on phosphorus, he became a hero. He got tenure, national fame, and a steady stream of funding to ensure that sugar would follow through on its promises to reduce phosphorus in wastewater. More important, he became the scientist on restoration. "Ron Jones is a guru," says South Florida Water Management District official Mike Collins, who works with him these days. "He's really a genius."

Fred Harper
This high-resolution radiometry image shows the algae buildup in Florida Bay
This high-resolution radiometry image shows the algae buildup in Florida Bay

Collins and governmental agencies like to work with Jones because Jones has sought to maintain the fragile equilibrium that holds CERP together. Jones, for instance, talks to the sugar growers and even once worked as a consultant to the sugar industry. He remains part of an oversight committee for CERP. His stature in matters like these also makes Collins's life easier. Following one agreeable scientist is easier than tracking the hypotheses of ten bickering biologists. And in the case of nitrogen, Jones gave the government an escape hatch; it could avoid more lawsuits, something that was critical to the state of Florida following the phosphorus debacle. Collins, who is the chairman of the district's resources advisory commission, says when he was appointed by Jeb Bush to his post, the governor gave him just a few instructions: "Try to keep the people from suing us and get the best science you can."

Lapointe, on the other hand, was a problem. Like Brand's later, his hypothesis that nitrogen was damaging the coral reefs would put the state at risk of another lawsuit. Florida had already lost one on phosphorus and was spending millions of dollars, along with the sugar growers, to clean wastewater. Neither of them could afford to lose another battle. What's more, from the beginning of Everglades restoration, sugar growers have made sure there would be no lawsuits that resembled the one about phosphorus. They know that cleaning phosphorus from the water is hard; cleaning nitrogen is technically impossible and certainly cost-prohibitive. In the late 1980s, for example, when much of the focus was also on cleaning Lake Okeechobee of the phosphorus-laden wastewater from sugar plantations, sugar lobbyists made sure the word "nitrogen" was deleted from the Lake Okeechobee Technical Advisory Committee (LOTAC) report. "The sugar cane people became extremely sensitive over nitrogen," remembered Herb Zebuth, an Environmental Protection Agency consultant who was a member of the advisory committee. "Under pressure from the sugar growers lobby, the LOTAC removed 'nitrogen' from [the] report they sent to the governor."

Before long, two camps emerged. On one side was Lapointe, who sought to connect agricultural runoff, and specifically nitrogen, to the problems in the estuary. On the other was Ron Jones, who limited the problem to the phosphorus runoff in the Everglades itself. Both wanted the Glades restored, but each saw them through different lenses. During the nascent stages of the Everglades project in the early 1990s, the two competing scientists worked together on a technical advisory committee for the Florida Keys. But it was only a matter of time before things got ugly. "Brian Lapointe was causing all kinds of problems," Jones says now. "I was brought in to counter Lapointe." In fact a team of people were "brought in" to argue down Lapointe. They said he lacked the data to prove his hypothesis. And, in many cases, he did.

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