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Florida sketches 3 possibilities for u.s. sugar deal

 

BY Curtis Morgan

The Miami Herald

Friday, September 12, 2008

The three plans amounted to little more than broad maps and concepts, but they staked out a position likely to come into play in the South Florida Water Management District's ongoing and complex negotiations with Big Sugar.

Two of the three options would shrink, or even eliminate, perhaps the biggest hole in the state's $1.75 billion proposal to buy out the U.S. Sugar Corp: The need to swap land with Florida Crystals, the second-biggest sugar giant and owner of an expensive, state-of-the-art plant and some 35,000 acres smack in the path of the restoration.

''We can achieve restoration with the U.S. Sugar lands alone,'' said Carol Ann Wehle, the district's executive director and one of the chief negotiators with the sugar companies.

Water managers still consider a swath that includes Florida Crystal's holdings the prime spot to recreate the ''missing link'' between the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee, by constructing reservoirs and pollution-filtering marshes to restore the flow of clean water south into the struggling marsh.

But during a meeting of the district's governing board in West Palm Beach, assistant deputy director Tommy Strowd outlined other options that he said would still provide an adequate supply of clean water.

One would bend a wide ''flow way'' of reservoirs and treatment areas west around Florida Crystals' crown-jewel Okeelanta facility, a sprawling processing plant, refinery and distribution center powered by burning cane waste. The other would convert U.S. Sugar's tracts, mostly ringed along Lake Okeechobee's southern rim, into reservoirs and water treatment areas -- with the trade off of a lot more pumps and plumbing to move water down canals into the Glades.

''We can still meet the goals with this land,'' said Strowd. ``It obviously looks highly engineered, and it is.''

While the proposals offered few details and no cost estimates, and could take more than a decade to construct, they could provide leverage in negotiations with Florida Crystals or other interested parties.

''One would think so,'' Wehle said.

In addition to land swaps, the district hopes to make as much as $500 million reselling U.S. Sugar's mills, railroads and other assets, though Wehle has called that more of an aspiration than a realistic target. That money primarily will be used to reduce the debt the district will incur to finance the deal.

Florida Crystals executives could not be reached for comment. The company, which has expressed interest in U.S. Sugar's holdings, remains the most likely player in major swaps, but the negotiating table appears to be getting more crowded.

Business and political leaders in the rural Glades are pushing a proposal for an inland port, possibly on Florida Crystals land, that would serve as a shipping hub.

And Gov. Charlie Crist told the St. Petersburg Times in a story published Thursday that he supports the idea of building an ethanol plant to replace a U.S. Sugar mill near Clewiston. Coskata, an Illinois firm, had been negotiating with U.S. Sugar for a site before the state buyout was proposed in June.

Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey said the governor viewed the ethanol plant possibility as way to both bolster the state's alternative fuel production, one of his climate-change goals, and to help communities worried about losing thousands of jobs when U.S. Sugar eventually shuts down. Under the terms of the proposal, the company will continue farming on leased land for at least six years and likely more.

While the governor wasn't endorsing any particular company, Ivey said, "he's always envisioned a change to more ethanol plants in the future.''

END

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"We must build a peace in South Florida - a peace between the people and their place, between the natural environment and man-made settlement, between the works of man and the life of mankind itself. "
~ Florida Gov. Reubin Askew ~