As Toxic Algae Chokes Florida Waters, Petition Urges Publix to Drop Big Sugar

Everyone agrees on this: Florida's waterways are facing an unprecedented emergency. Toxic algae blooms have choked waterways across the state, closing beaches and rivers to tourists and residents. Gov. Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency in two counties. 

There's less agreement about who's at fault. Scott's blamed the feds for letting a dam on Lake Okeechobee deteriorate.  But many environmentalists point toward a more familiar foe: Big Sugar, which sparked the bloom, they say, with massive pollution runoff into Lake O.

One surf shop manager hard hit by the crisis says he's had enough. He's started a petition demanding that Publix stop carrying products from U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals — and he's garnered more than 10,000 signatures this week backing his cause.

"Publix is a Florida-owned company that says they'd support our environment," says Brent Meinhold, who manages the Ohana Surf Shop in Stuart. "We're not trying to put Publix or even Big Sugar out of business, but we want them to acknowledge their role in creating this disaster and their need to fix it."

Meinhold, who is 25, is a Stuart native. He says he's never seen a pollution outbreak like the one choking rivers and beaches throughout Florida today.

"It's a ghost town around here. This time of year there'd be 200 people at the beach by now," he says. "We had to cancel our surf camp. These kids have come from all over to our surf camp to get out there to learn to surf and we had to call them up and tell them we can't go."

Videos and photos around the state this week show a thick, sludgy green algae in waterways. Manatees have even gotten trapped in the bloom:
"I watched a video of my buddy dropping quarters off a dock, and the coin can't even break through all the algae," Meinhold says. "It's the worst we've ever seen."

The Army Corps of Engineers has begun reducing outflow from Lake Okeechobee today in an effort to stem the toxic bloom, but politicians — including Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio — have asked them to stop all water flow. Scott's emergency declaration means state funds will be available to help with the cleanup.

But Meinhold says residents need to get serious about stopping the root cause of the problem.

"Big Sugar is always trying to put the blame on other people, but there's no question that their practices are the problem," he says. "This is one way to pressure them for change."

Publix hasn't responded to a request from New Times to comment on this petition; we'll update this post when we hear back.  
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink