Florida wetlands and waterways face development and potential harm as vacated Trump rules linger

Swaths of wetlands and waterways in Florida left unprotected when the Trump administration weakened federal standards in early 2020 are being developed in Florida — despite a federal ruling that struck down the Trump rules eight weeks ago.

At least 300,000 acres of wetlands and waterways in Florida alone are likely subject to regulation under the stronger, pre-Trump standards, say a trio of environmental lawyers and scientists, but state regulators have announced no change in course since the Aug. 31 federal ruling.

One of those wild, watery places is being cleared for construction right now in Orlando: a 63-acre site known as Princeton Oaks II in Orlando.

“The developer has started clearing that property," Earthjustice attorney Christina Reichert told the Phoenix.

“This was the last forest in Orlando," said ecologist Wanda Jones, who said she grew up alongside its trees and wetlands, which inspired her to study, teach and practice environmental conservation.

The Aug. 31 ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary Marquez in an Arizona-based case tossed out Trump's January 2020 federal “Navigable Waters Protection Rule" – which Reichert and Jones say stripped away protection by narrowly defining wetlands and waterways in order to exclude them from protections they once had under Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act.

Marquez warned in her ruling that “serious environmental harm" could result from Trump rule remaining in place.

Acting on that ruling, Reichert quickly wrote letters from Earthjustice to the developer, to Florida's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and to the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) to abandon the Trump standard, enforce the stricter standard, and halt projects such as the industrial park at Princeton Oaks II, given her conviction that it qualifies for protection under the stricter standard.

Otherwise, by all accounts, the project has all the permits it requires to proceed uninterrupted.

Nearly two months later, Reichert has received no response, nor has development of the site ceased.

Jones said it was hard for her to see an adjacent 60-acre site in her community leveled previously and harder still to watch the remaining site being scoured when she believes it is entitled to federal, state and local protection.

“This entire area was protected under the Clean Water Act," she said. “We always had healthy trees and green grass."

The site is being developed as phase II of an industrial park by Princeton Oaks Industrial Investors II, LLC, which is affiliated with Foundry Commercial. Personnel there did not immediately respond to messages seeking comments.

The Phoenix repeatedly asked the state DEP by phone and email how many Florida projects and acres may be affected by the Aug. 31 ruling and whether DEP has halted any projects or changed course in any way. The response, given twice since Sept. 8:

“We are aware of the ruling and actively working together with our federal partners to determine how this ruling affects our state and any potential changes to existing regulations," wrote DEP Press Secretary Alexandra Kuchta. “The department is continuing to administer the state 404 program."

Reichert said those statements clarify nothing, but the phrase “any potential changes" suggests to her that DEP has not changed how it is regulating wetlands and waterways.

Like Reichert, the Phoenix sought but did not receive clarification from the EPA about whether state regulators governed by the Clean Water Act should in the interim follow the 2020 Trump standard that was vacated or revert to the previous, tougher standard.

“Our position is that following the law means telling Florida to apply the former … standard while EPA does its rulemaking," Reichert said. Florida would say that it is not required to do so.

Meanwhile, the federal EPA is taking public comments on establishing new rules that better comply with the federal Clean Water Act.

Diana Umpierre, organizing representatives for the Sierra Club's Everglades Restoration Campaign and Our Wild America program, said the Trump-era waterways standard was the weakest yet and that wetlands around the nation, including parts of the internationally renowned Florida Everglades, are at risk of permanent damage while regulators debate the issue.

Umpierre said the regulators should choose to be more protective of wetlands, not less so, to avoid the environmental harm foreseen by Judge Marquez.

“This is part of restoring the wetlands," Umpierre said. “Nature is complex. Water is complex. That is why we have scientists.

“Every time we degrade our environment, there is a cost," she said.

Sierra Club, Earthjustice and other environment-focused groups have filed comments to the EPA seeking high standards for protecting wetlands and waterways.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and National Association of Home Builders are among the parties that have filed comments in opposition.

The EPA has received more than 32,000 comments on new protective regulations for wetlands and waterways.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Protesters march to Tallahassee state capitol: 'Don’t Texas my Florida!'

From marching and singing to beeping and waving signs, protesters were out in force Saturday to fight against a Texas-style abortion ban that's been filed in the Florida Legislature as well as attacks against transgender rights.

The marches and rallies were scheduled in cities and communities across Florida and states elsewhere on Saturday, part of a “Day of Action" nationwide as tensions rise over the threat to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

In Tallahassee, protesters marched to the historic Old Capitol on the capitol complex grounds, waving signs that said, “We Will Not Be Silenced," and “Ruth sent me," a reference to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Another sign, “Don't Texas my Florida," referred to the recent anti-abortion legislation filed for the January 2022 Florida legislative session that would be similar to the Texas law banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. The Florida legislation would allow citizens to sue people who provide or enable abortions. The bill is HB 167.

At least two protesters showcased “red handmaid" garb — a reference to The Handmaid's Tale novel by author Margaret Atwood as well as the Hulu series. But organizers in some areas of the country had asked that the costume should not be worn because it represents control of reproductive rights and other concerns, according to news outlets.

On the Capitol grounds, protesters put down a wide banner that scrolled down the steps of the Old Capitol building. It said: “Bans Off My Body." Another smaller sign, close by said: “Governor DeSantis, Shame on You."

During the speeches at the Old Capitol, protesters chanted: “Hey hey, ho, ho, Ron DeSantis has got to go." DeSantis is running for reelection in 2022.

The protesters on Saturday are under the shadow of HB 1, DeSantis' Black Lives Matter-inspired crackdown on political protests. A federal judge has enjoined enforcement of the law for now, but organizers warned participants not to engage with counter protesters.

In Tallahassee on Saturday, there were more than 100 people and the rally was peaceful albeit somewhat loud, with cars on the roadway beeping and protesters chanting several times, such as “Our body, our choice," and “Stand up, fight back."

Delilah Pierre, field director for the Tallahassee Community Action Committee, told the crowd that abortion rights for women are entwined with transgender rights. Earlier this year, DeSantis signed legislation barring transgender girls from playing on girls' team in high school and college, and legislation recently proposed would criminalize doctors who help transgender children adjust to their gender identities.

“We can still fight, we can still win," Pierre said.

That said, the GOP controls both chambers of the Florida Legislature and there are more male lawmakers than women lawmakers.

Top GOP leaders, Senate President Wilton Simpson and House Speaker Chris Sprowls have shown interest in pursuing the Texas-style bill, as does DeSantis, though encouraging citizens to snoop on each other when it comes to abortions and lawsuits may not pass muster in the Florida legislation.

Republican Kathleen Passidomo, chair of the Senate Rules Committee and next in line to become Senate President, said last month during a speech reported by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that she opposes having citizens sue each other to police abortions.

Meanwhile, Barbara DeVane, a longtime lobbyist for progressive causes in Tallahassee, spoke at the march Saturday, outlining how to move forward.

She recommended getting people riled up, educated, motivated and involved in elections and voting.

She also said, “It's time for women to go on the offensive."

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Guns at election sites: What could go wrong?

Guns don't belong in places where people vote, register to vote or count votes, the League of Women Voters of Florida says in joining a federal lawsuit that involves gun rights and voter intimidation.

“The League of Women Voters of Florida is strongly advocating for proections against voter intimidation in our state," said League president Cecile Scoon in a statement announcing its filing of an amicus brief in a New York lawsuit pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association and plaintiffs Robert Nash and Brandon Koch are suing New York authorities to challenge restrictions in that state on carrying concealed firearms in public places including election-related settings. The League of Women Voters of the United States and the Florida chapter are joining the case in support of gun restrictions that shield voters and election workers from intimidation.

“The League has long recognized that the right to vote is meaningless without the right to vote safely. The unchecked carrying of concealed firearms imperils the electoral process at multiple stages, from the threat of violence at registration to voter intimidation at the polls," the League says in its Sept. 21 filing.

The filing defends New York's requirement that a person licensed to carry a concealed firearm must demonstrate “proper cause" why he or she specifically needs to carry a gun in public. The lawsuit does not challenge broad rights to carry a gun under the Second Amendment.

“New Yorkers may own and bear a firearm in a variety of settings: at home, in connection with a job, out hunting, and, when 'proper cause' is shown, in public. New York thus ensures that – given local circumstances – the right to bear arms can coexist with public order and New Yorkers' right to vote without fear of encountering firearms obtained on 'speculative or specious' grounds," the filing says.

The League filing cites the Jan. 6 attack on the nation's Capitol during congressional certification of the 2020 presidential election results as a stark example of how weapons and violence can erode public confidence in participating in election activities. “Without the District of Columbia's strict limitations on concealed carry, the damage on all sides could have been far worse," the filing says.

The plaintiffs argued in a December 2020 petition that citizens should be able to carry guns anywhere for self-defense.

“A law that flatly prohibits ordinary law-abiding citizens from carrying a handgun for self-defense outside the home cannot be reconciled with the Court's affirmation of the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation," the Rifle & Pistol Association argues, complaining about similar laws in multiple jurisdictions.

Others that filed amicus briefs in July in support of the Rifle & Pistol Association include Gun Owners of America, the Center for Defense of Free Enterprise, the Cato Institute, and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and 24 other U.S. senators.

Organizations that filed amicus briefs in support of the gun restrictions include the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the American Medical Association, March For Our Lives Action Fund, and the City of Chicago and 11 other cities from Seattle to Baltimore.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

GOP-linked 'Moms for Liberty' group dominates the fight against mask mandates as COVID spikes in Florida schools

In navy T-shirts emblazoned with “Moms for Liberty" in white lettering, a vocal group of mothers has dominated public comments at recent Florida school board meetings, condemning face masks as dangerous to children.

As heated discussions continue over mask mandates at schools, the question is, who are these mothers?

This article was originally published at Florida Phoenix

At the top, they are political strategists, risk managers and communications professionals — high-powered women with connections to top state and national Republicans, according to LinkedIn profiles and local media reports.

Their followers have been among unruly crowds, disrupting school board sessions on mask mandates and yelling at board members. School board chairs have recessed discussions and cleared the room of hecklers, according to live broadcasts of board hearings.

Thus far, the group of moms have been unable to fend off adoption of mask mandates by eight large school districts. Those are the school boards of Alachua, Broward, Miami-Dade, Leon, Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Sarasota and most recently Duval.

But Moms For Liberty has 15 chapters in Florida counties, the most of any one state. Its website says its mission is to “stoke the fires of Liberty" and “fight for the survival of America" by organizing parents into activist groups.

Nearly half the states in the nation have at least one chapter, according to the group's website.

In Florida, the organization's private Facebook groups claim to have 1,885 members in Brevard County, 579 in Volusia, and 481 in Sarasota County. Many other chapter have more than 100 members.

The conservative activist group was incorporated in December, with one sitting school board member and two former school board members from Florida, according to the Florida Division of Corporations. Its members have appeared at most, if not all, school board meetings last week and Monday to condemn mask mandates as illegal and a threat to freedom.

According to commentary on its site and news reports, members of the group have expressed opposition not only to mask mandates, but vaccine mandates, LGBTQ-friendly policies, teacher unions, government bureaucracy and the teaching of curriculum broadly referred to as critical race theory, including discussions related to historical slavery and segregation. (Florida has disallowed critical race theory in the state's public school curriculum.)

Here are some of the leaders of the Moms for Liberty group:

The Northeast Florida chapter co-chair is a Republican strategist who has been featured on Fox News. She is Quisha King, who worked for the Republican National Committee in 2020 as a regional engagement organizer for Black Voices For Trump, according to the Federalist Papers website.

One of the three original founders of Moms For Liberty is Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler, according to the Division of Corporations. Ziegler's name was removed from the roster of directors in February. She was interviewed on Fox News on June 10.

Ziegler, whose LinkedIn profile says she is a risk-management consultant, is a Republican precinct committeewoman in Sarasota County and a supporter of Gov. Ron DeSantis, who she praised on Fox as a “great governor" whose positions have made the state “Freedom Florida." She also is married to Christian Ziegler, vice-chair of the Republican Party of Florida.

Another founder of Moms For Liberty is Tina Descovich, a communications and marketing professional, and former member of the Brevard County School Board. She was defeated in 2020 by Democrat Jennifer Jenkins, a speech pathologist and educator who champions COVID restrictions in schools.

The third founder is Tiffany Justice, a former member of the Indian River County School Board who championed a failed lawsuit challenging mask mandates last school year.

Listed in corporate filings as a director since February is Marie Rogerson, a candidate for Republican State Committeewoman in 2020.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Florida official calls on DeSantis to declare state of emergency: 'Our hospitals and our health care workers are overwhelmed'

Citing new state and federal COVID-19 statistics, Florida Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Nikki Fried called on Gov. Ron DeSantis Monday to declare a state of emergency and draw down federal disaster assistance.

In her daily announcements of updated COVID data, Fried said Monday that conditions in Florida are becoming dire, yet DeSantis has shown no interest in issuing emergency orders other than to block local restrictions such as mask-wearing mandates, recommended by the CDC, and vaccine mandates.

“Our hospitals and our health care workers are overwhelmed. We're hearing reports that pediatric and rural hospitals across the state are filling up and some already at capacity," Fried said during a Zoom event later posted on her department's social media pages.

“Governor, it is time that we issue a state of emergency. Our hospitals need this, our medical providers, our resources to our locals. It is past time. There are federal resources that we can't access without a state of emergency being declared.

“There is no excuse to not ask for all the help that we can get," Fried concluded.

Nearly 26,000 new cases of COVID-19 and 27 fatalities in Florida were reported overnight Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The pandemic total death toll rose to 40,766, including 1,071 in the past week, according to the Florida Department of Health weekly report issued Friday.

Florida hospitals were treating 15,962 COVID patients — including 170 children — pushing hospitals to 84 percent of full capacity, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. HHS reported that 3,357 COVID patients were in intensive care units, which were at 92 percent of full capacity. More than half (51.46 percent) of the intensive-care patients were COVID patients.

One-fifth of the 198 Florida hospitals that reported data had reached critical staffing shortages, according to the HHS report Monday. That is based on 37 hospitals reporting shortages in real time, 161 reporting their shortages are not yet critical, and 59 not reporting.

Also Monday, the governor announced during a press conference in Orlando that free monoclonal antibody therapy is now available without a prescription at a “Regeneron Clinic" at World Camping Stadium in Orlando. He said the therapy for people infected with COVID-19 fends off severe illness if administered early.

The CDC was less enthusiastic, reporting on Aug. 10 that the therapy appears to be less effective against the Delta variant, which is now dominant, and against other variants than it was against the original coronavirus.

“Laboratory studies suggest specific monoclonal antibody treatments may be less effective for treating cases of COVID-19 caused by variants with certain substitutions or combinations of substitutions in the spike protein," the CDC reported.

DeSantis said as many as 320 people can be treated daily, seven days a week; that appointments can be made through PatientPortalFL.com; and that other such clinics are planned.

With Tropical Storm Fred moving into Florida Monday, Fried and DeSantis at their respective events urged Floridians to practice COVID-safe protocols if they must evacuate their homes and gather with others, and to monitor local advisories. The storm strengthened overnight as it approached Florida's northern Gulf Coast and was expected to generate isolated flooding from storm surge and heavy rainfall as it moves inland.

At Fried's event, the commissioner took another jab at DeSantis' ban on mask mandates in Florida schools by hosting comments by a student with a disability who supports mask mandates.

She introduced Lake Mary High School junior J.J. Holmes, whom she invited to the event.

Holmes said he is thrilled that classes have at last resumed in person but that he feels at risk if he attends because he has a disability that prevents him from wearing a face mask. Holmes has cerebral palsy and communicates via an iPad that he activates with his nose, which must be unmasked.

Holmes urged DeSantis to allow schools to impose mask mandates on behalf of students like him who need others to mask up to prevent transmission because he cannot. Otherwise, he cannot safely go to school in person, he said.

Fried highlighted that several lawsuits have been filed by parents against DeSantis on behalf of students with disabilities, accusing him of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act by banning schools from requiring masks that could safeguard vulnerable students.

“What message do you have for people like Gov. DeSantis who say 'just deal with it' when it comes to the spread of the virus?" Fried asked Holmes.

After a long pause to enter commands on his iPad, Holmes answered via the device, “When COVID struck, and I had to do virtual school, I did deal with it. When I stayed home and isolated for the last 18 months because I cannot wear a mask, I did deal with it. When I couldn't get my power chair because of COVID, I did deal with it.

“When my grammy died and I couldn't go to her funeral because of COVID, I did deal with it. I have been dealing with it. … All I have left to give up is my education and my life."

Holmes said his favorite subject is civics and that he aspires to pursue a career in political science.

During previous briefings and events, Fried has invited speakers including Lila Hartley, a 12-year-old who wrote a letter to the Duval County School Board urging it to adopt a mask mandate to protect her unvaccinated 10-year-old brother; and Wakulla County School Board member Verna Brock, who called on the governor to stop dictating to local elected school officials about school safety during this resurgence of COVID.

Fried, Florida's only statewide elected Democrat, and a candidate for her party's nomination to take on DeSantis in next year's gubernatorial race, has been holding daily briefings to announce COVID data and to call on state officials to resume daily data releases, which they halted in early June.

During his event, DeSantis was asked by reporters why he has not directed the Department of Health to reinstate daily data releases and the detailed dashboard it operated last year. DeSantis did not directly answer and said the state releases the data to the CDC, where the public can find the information among national data if they so choose.

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.

Happy Holidays!