Environmentalists sue over Florida wastewater reservoir leak

Environmentalists sue over Florida wastewater reservoir leak

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — Efforts to clean up a leaky reservoir that dumped tens of millions of gallons of potentially hazardous gypsum wastewater into Tampa Bay must be overseen by a federal judge to guard against continued mismanagement, environmental groups claimed in a lawsuit filed Thursday.

More than 215 million gallons (813 million liters) of wastewater was released earlier this year into the bay, blamed by some scientists and commercial fishermen for causing algae blooms, temporarily closing shellfish harvesting and worsening an outbreak of fish-killing toxic red tide along the Gulf coast.

“The Piney Point disaster is exhibit A in a long list of Florida’s failures to protect our water and wildlife from the harms of phosphogypsum,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs.

The Piney Point reservoir contains stacks of gypsum that are a slightly radioactive byproduct of phosphate fertilizer production. After its owner went bankrupt, the state took over its operation and allowed dredge material to be stored there, according to the lawsuit. The state later sold the site.

State officials have declined comment on the lawsuit, which names Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Department of Environmental Protection and others. It claims the leak and others before it violated several federal laws, including the Clean Water Act.

After this year’s leak, the Legislature approved $100 million for a plan to permanently close the reservoir. Officials also say the state will hold accountable those responsible for the leak, which was caused when tears in a plastic liner threatened to trigger a major breach that could have unleashed even more contaminated water.

The environmental groups contend in their lawsuit that the state’s track record on Piney Point is highly questionable and that judicial oversight is needed to ensure the viability of cleanup plans.

“Sate and local regulators have failed the public for decades and continue to mismanage the waste generated by the phosphate industry,”said Annie Beaman, co-executive director of the Our Children’s Earth Foundation. “We resort to federal court oversight when decisions by the political branches of the government endanger the public.”

Among the ongoing threats, the lawsuit contends, include possible continued failures of the reservoir liners, leaks that pollute groundwater supplies and a plan to use deep-well injection to dispose of wastewater underground.

“Recent events at the abandoned Piney Point phosphate plant clearly demonstrate that not enough is being done to safeguard the public or the environment,” said Glenn Compton, chairman of ManaSota-88, a nonprofit environmental organization.

About two dozen other phosphogypsum stacks exist in Florida reservoirs that contain more than 1 billion tons of potentially hazardous waste, the environmental groups say.

The lawsuit asks a federal judge to declare Piney Point an “imminent and substantial endangerment” to the environment and public health, and require government action to fix that. The judge is also asked to “exercise close supervision” over the situation.

“We’re not confident in our regulators’ ability to manage this mess and this legal action is necessary to protect communities and waterways from further harm,” said Justin Bloom, founder of Suncoast Waterkeeper.

Osceola deputies arrest man accused of multiple threats against family court judge

Osceola deputies arrest man accused of multiple threats against family court judge

After “an extended period,” Osceola County deputy sheriffs arrested a man barricaded inside his home near Kissimmee months after he was released from jail, accused of threatening to kill a family court judge for “treason.”

Adam Lee Andersen, 34, is back at the Osceola Jail for violating the terms of his release, which was to not contact the victim directly or indirectly, according to court records. Originally arrested for extortion on April 1 after allegedly threatening a judge in late March, Andersen was additionally charged June 16 with corruption by threat against a public official and written threats to commit a mass shooting.

His next court appearance is scheduled for July 2.

The sheriff’s office said Andersen locked himself in his Indian Point Circle home when deputies arrived to arrest him but he eventually surrendered. An agency spokesperson did not say how long it took for him to turn himself over nor did one respond to an email seeking clarification.

Court records and a review of what appears to be Andersen’s Facebook page show he’s been embroiled since 2019 in a contentious divorce in which he was denied custody of his daughter.

Since then, he has posted multiple times about wanting to publicly hang family court judges. Though most of those posts are dated prior to his April arrest, only two were cited. One of them, allegedly posted on Jan. 20, included a photo of the judge in his divorce case, whose name was redacted.

How Florida is struggling to get aid to tenants

How Florida is struggling to get aid to tenants

About 3.2 million people in the U.S. say they face eviction in the next two months.

A federal freeze on most evictions enacted last year is scheduled to expire July 31, after the Biden administration extended the date by a month. The moratorium, put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in September, was the only tool keeping millions of tenants in their homes. Many of them lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic and had fallen months behind on rent.

Landlords successfully challenged the order in court, arguing they also had bills to pay. They pointed out that tenants could access more than $45 billion in federal money set aside to help pay rents and related expenses.

Advocates for tenants say the distribution of the money has been slow and that more time is needed to distribute it and repay landlords. Without an extension, they feared a spike in evictions and lawsuits seeking to boot out tenants who are behind on their rents.

As of June 7, roughly 3.2 million people in the U.S. said they face eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. The survey measures the social and economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic every two weeks through online responses from a representative sample of U.S. households.

Here’s the situation in Florida:

What’s the status of eviction moratoriums in the state?

Florida is one of several states that enacted a moratorium last year halting eviction proceedings. Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed his executive order to expire at the end of September, leaving only the CDC moratorium in place. When the federal protections are lifted, landlords in Florida must give tenants a minimum of three days to pay back rent before they can initiate the eviction process.

What’s being done to help people facing eviction?

Florida is using $1.4 billion from the federal government to help tenants pay delinquent rent, utility payments and other overdue expenses. About $530 million of that money will go directly to the state’s largest communities — those with populations of more than 200,000 — to help renters in arrears. The rest of the money is being distributed by the state’s Department of Children and Families through a new program called “Our Florida.”

But the money isn’t reaching needy families fast enough, according to state Rep. Anna Eskamani.

“It’s a been a long process with a lot of delays,” said Eskamani, a Democrat. “Our counties, alongside our Florida program, have really struggled to get resources out to people.”

How are the courts handling evictions?

Nearly 47,500 evictions were filed in Florida between March and December of last year, according to the Office of the State Courts Administrator. While courts are still getting back up to speed after lifting some pandemic restrictions, eviction proceedings are backlogged.

What is the affordability in the state’s major rental markets?

Florida’s Tampa Bay area has seen some of the highest rent increases in the country over the past year, with median rents about $1,500 a month in May, surging nearly 16.9% from a year earlier, according to Realtor.com. Cities in South Florida, including Miami and Fort Lauderdale, saw rents spike nearly 6% over the same time period. South Florida already has some of the country’s most expensive rents, with monthly median rent about $2,000.

Are evictions expected to create a surge in homelessness?

Housing advocacy groups are bracing for more homeless families as the federal moratorium expires. But it’s hard to tell how big of a problem it will be, according to Ron Book, who chairs the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust.

“We don’t know what we’ll really face,” Book said. “But I’ve had sleepless nights thinking about the elderly who could become homeless for the first time.”

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 400,000 Floridians are not current on rent — and about a fourth of them believe they are likely to be evicted within two months. Where they will go is an open question.

When DeSantis lifted the state’s moratorium last fall, there was a surge in phone calls to support groups — but many struggling renters might be unaware of the help that is available.

Those facing evictions might not end up becoming homeless — at least under some government definitions — because they might have access to a couch at the home of a relative or friend.

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Republished with permission from The Associated Press.

Here Are The New Florida Laws That Will Take Effect July 1

Here Are The New Florida Laws That Will Take Effect July 1

They include a requirement for out-of-state online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made by Floridians, and surveys to assess the “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” at state colleges and universities.

More than 100 new laws passed during the 2021 legislative session will hit the books this week, ranging from a record $100 billion state budget to a ban on COVID-19 vaccine “passports” and an expansion of school vouchers.

Also taking effect are two measures from the 2020 session, including a law that will allow college athletes to make money off the field based on their names, images and likenesses.

Most of this year’s new laws take effect Thursday, which also is the start of the state’s 2021-2022 fiscal year. But about 40 bills passed this year have already gone into place, and another 20 will take effect later this year.

Among the laws taking effect Thursday:

BUDGET: Aided by federal stimulus funds, the new state budget (SB 2500) includes money for Everglades restoration and addressing the effects of sea-level rise. It also will raise the minimum pay of state workers to $13 an hour, give bonuses to first responders and provide an additional $50 million to raise teacher salaries. In addition, it will provide $96 million to offer home- and community-based services to more people with developmental and intellectual disabilities and earmark $100 million to clean up an old phosphate plant in Manatee County that sparked concerns this year about a potential environmental catastrophe.

TAX BREAKS: Lawmakers approved a $196.3 million tax package (SB 7061), highlighted by sales-tax “holidays.” That includes a tax holiday for back-to-school shoppers in August and a new “Freedom Week” tax holiday that will start Thursday and provide tax breaks on such things as entertainment tickets and outdoor equipment.

ONLINE TAX COLLECTIONS: After years of debate about the issue, lawmakers approved a measure (SB 50) that will require out-of-state online retailers to collect sales taxes on purchases made by Floridians. An estimated $1 billion a year in additional revenue will be used to replenish an unemployment trust fund and then go toward reducing a commercial rent tax.

SOCIAL MEDIA: In a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Republican lawmakers passed a measure (SB 7072) that, in part, seeks to bar social-media companies from removing political candidates from the companies’ platforms. Companies that violate the prohibition could face fines of $250,000 a day for statewide candidates and $25,000 a day for other candidates. Online-industry groups are challenging the measure in federal court.

BALLOT INITIATIVES: The Legislature approved a measure (SB 1890) that includes a $3,000 limit on contributions to political committees trying to get proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot. Opponents have filed a federal lawsuit to try to block the contribution cap.

SCHOOL VOUCHERS: Continuing years of efforts to bolster school choice, lawmakers passed a measure (HB 7045) that will expand school vouchers. In part, the law will increase a family income threshold for children to qualify for vouchers and will remove a requirement that students had to previously be enrolled in public schools.

MOMENT OF SILENCE: Lawmakers approved a proposal (HB 529) that will require public schools to hold moments of silence each day. Teachers, while prohibited from suggesting the nature of any reflection, are expected to encourage parents to discuss with children how best to use the time.

CIVICS EDUCATION: Lawmakers passed a measure (HB 5) that will require high-school U.S. government courses to include “a comparative discussion of political ideologies that conflict with the principles of freedom and democracy” and require public schools to establish a civics-education curriculum to develop “an upright citizenry.”

INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM: The GOP-controlled Legislature passed a measure (HB 233) that will require conducting surveys to assess the “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” at state colleges and universities.

TRANGENDER ATHLETES: After a fierce debate, lawmakers approved a wide-ranging education measure (SB 1028) that includes a ban on transgender females participating on girls’ and women’s high-school and college sports teams.

RIGHT TO FARM: In a priority of Senate President Wilton Simpson, lawmakers passed a measure (SB 88) that will expand the state’s “Right to Farm” law and provide additional legal protections to farmers from what are known as nuisance lawsuits.

COVID-19 PASSPORTS: In a DeSantis priority, lawmakers approved a measure (SB 2006) to prevent businesses, schools and government agencies from requiring people to show documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccinations before gaining entrance — a concept known as requiring COVID-19 vaccine “passports.” The law also will grant the governor power to override local orders during health crises.

ALCOHOL TO GO: Known as “alcohol to go,” a new law (SB 148) will allow restaurants to sell alcoholic drinks with take-home meals. The measure puts into law a practice that DeSantis began allowing last year to help restaurants that had to dramatically scale back operations because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

PROPERTY INSURANCE: An insurance package (SB 76) will allow larger annual rate increases for customers of the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. It also will prevent contractors from soliciting homeowners to file insurance claims, seek to limit attorney fees in lawsuits against insurers and reduce from three years to two years the time to file claims.

TOLL ROADS: Two years after lawmakers passed a controversial plan to build and expand toll roads, they reversed course this year and approved a measure (SB 100) to repeal it. The new law, however, requires moving ahead with planning to extend Florida’s Turnpike from its current western end at Wildwood and planning to interweave a route along U.S. 19 from the Suncoast Parkway to Interstate 10 in Madison County.

GUN REGULATIONS: The Legislature approved a measure (SB 1884) that will broaden a controversial 2011 law that threatens tough penalties against local governments that impose gun regulations. The new law will allow lawsuits for “unwritten” local policies that violate the state’s gun-regulation preemption.

FOREIGN INFLUENCE: As part of a push to curb influence of foreign governments, lawmakers approved a measure (HB 7017) that, in part, will require state agencies and universities to report receiving gifts or grants valued at $50,000 or more “from any foreign source.”