Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Anti GE Tree Activists Kicked Off Florida University Campus, Spied on by FBI


Colleges and universities offer little room for informed discourse on plant biotech

 

A few months ago, while reporting an article about genetically engineered trees for Earth Island Journal’s Autumn issue (read the story here), I had a mighty hard time locating plant biologists or genetic engineers at academic institutions who were willing to talk about the possible risks of growing GE trees in massive plantations. It seemed there was little debate over this controversial issue within the biotech community on college campuses — the very places where most of the research into GE trees is carried out.


students studying on campus greenPhoto by Steve McFarland 
 
 Critics say there's little debate over this controversial issue within the biotech community on college campuses — the very places where most of the research into GE trees is carried out.
So it didn’t come as too much of a surprise when I heard that a group of environmental activists who were scheduled to make a presentation on GE trees at the University of Florida in Gainesville last month were booted off the campus, charged with trespassing, and banned from the university grounds for three years. What did come as a bit of a surprise was news that the FBI, too, was keeping tabs on the activists.
Genetically modified strains of trees like eucalyptus, pines, poplars, and fruit trees are being tested in hundreds of trial plots across the world, including the United States. In the US, except for a GE papaya tree variety that is grown commercially in Hawai‘i, there are no commercial GE tree plantations — yet. (The US Department of Agriculture is considering a proposal to grow GE eucalyptus in commercial plantations.) Some environmentalists are concerned that transgenic trees will promote industrial monoculture plantations that could have a huge impact on forest biodiversity.
The Gainesville campus GE tree presentation was part of a multi-week speaking tour, "The Growing Threat: Genetically Engineered Trees and the Future of Forests," organized by the Global Justice Ecology Project, Campaign to STOP GE Trees, and Everglades Earth First! The speakers were traveling to campuses in several southern states to raise awareness about the proposed commercial release of genetically engineered, freeze-tolerant eucalyptus trees in the US South.
The talk had been scheduled for October 28, a Monday. A conference room had been booked at the university’s McKnight Brain Institute a month in advance. But four days before the event, the institute cancelled the booking. The institute officials first said it was because they had to “give priority to brain and neuroscience related functions.” On being pressed for clarification, they said the AV equipment in the room wasn’t working and they couldn’t offer an alternative space. The university student who had booked the room checked the institute’s calendar and found that there were four other conference rooms available, but institute officials didn’t respond to his request for a new reservation by the time the weekend rolled in.
The Saturday before the event, the student and five other anti GE tree campaigners turned up at the institute and tried to enter the locked building to check whether the rooms were really unavailable. They first tried to open the door using the student’s ID card and then tried to talk staff and students into letting them in. Soon enough, cops arrived on the scene and cited the six for trespassing (read the police report here).
The activists say the police were “unnecessarily aggressive” toward them and didn’t seem interested in what they had to say. “We just wanted to see if we could go in and find someone to talk to about helping us out,” says Will Bennington, a campaigner with the Global Justice Ecology Project who was cited for trespassing.
“We tried to get creative [in looking for ways to get in], but we weren’t doing anything wrong. The long and short of it is we didn’t get in and were walking off when [the police] arrived.”
UF spokeswoman Janine Sikes says the activists “were very deceptive.” She had a third, differing reason to offer for the cancelation. “Instructional space is not available for non-university persons, groups or organizations,” she told the Journal via email. It’s not clear why the administration didn’t realize this at the time the booking was made in September, or why the various reasons cited for the cancelled bookings don’t match up.
Robbed of a venue, the activists instead gave a Skype presentation to UF Professor Bron Taylor’s environmental ethics class.
“I wasn’t, of course, at the building where they were confronted, so I don’t know what exactly happened,” Taylor told me. “What I do know is there is a dearth of discussion on the issue of genetically modified organisms, both in the university and the world at large. And the debate doesn’t happen in a rational manner because there’s an influx of corporate money that manages the messaging.”
The University of Florida is one of the leading academic institutions researching transgenic trees. In 2011, the university’s Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation and South Carolina-based GE tree company ArborGen won a three-year, $6.3 million grant from the US Department of Energy to develop GE loblolly pines for liquid biofuel production.
The matter, however, didn’t end here. Bennington says that four days after the Gainesville “trespass” incident, when the activists were about to start their presentation at Palm Beach State College in Boca Raton, the college provost, Dr. Bernadette Russell, turned up at the venue, called the assembled students out of the hall and informed them that the FBI had contacted her in the morning and warned her to keep an eye on the event because the activists could be “disruptive.” She then posted a security guard in the building for the entire duration of the presentation.
“It’s pretty astounding that running something as harmless as a PowerPoint presentation can draw surveillance,” Bennington says. “To be frank, we are on high alert now… We don’t really know what else to expect.”
The college administration as well as the FBI field office in Miami refused to comment on the incident, citing security protocols. But a Palm Beach State College student who had helped organize the event confirmed that Russell had indeed called the students out of the classroom and relayed the warning.
“Basically, she just said that the FBI had contacted to her in the morning because of the GE tree presentation and because some of the organizers were from Earth First!,” Lily de la Espriella, a 20-year-old environmental studies major, told me. She said the provost told her that she should check with the administration before organizing such events in the future. “I’ve helped organize other Earth First! events on campus before, but this is the first time I was asked to seek special permission,” De la Espriella says.
Bennington hopes these incidents will help show people how “the government and industry are so close” and how they join forces to quash dissent. (For a deeper look into how money influences US environmental policy, read our Autumn 2012 cover story package, The Worst Environment Money Can Buy. For more information on how corporations and law enforcement agencies are spying on environmentalists, check out our Summer 2014 cover story, Prying Eyes. ) The rest of the speaking tour, it appears, went off more or less smoothly.
Back when I was looking for plant biologists to speak with about GE trees, George Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety, told me there were very few who would be willing and able to speak out against biotech in the US because agricultural and forest biotech companies, control the research through money and through patents. “Scientists are afraid,” Kimbrell said. “They are afraid of losing their grants, they are afraid of losing their ability to research.”
If the Florida incidents are any indication, this fear of losing funding extends to college and university administrations as well. As Gainesville ethics professor Taylor says, “I don’t see universities as a whole making the effort to have public debate about what’s going on behind their lab doors.”
Maureen Nandini Mitra, Managing Editor, Earth Island Journal.Maureen Nandini Mitra photo
In addition to her work at the Journal, Maureen writes for several other magazines and online publications in the US and India. A journalism graduate from Columbia University, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Public Press, The New Internationalist, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, The Caravan and Down to Earth.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

South FL Enviro-groups File Federal Challenge Over the Scripps/Briger Phase II Project


To help with the lawsuit, please DONATE 

In the ongoing fight to save the Briger Forest, the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition (PBCEC), The South Florida Wildlands Association, The Sierra Club of Florida led by its Loxahatchee Group, and the Palm Beach County Green Party have submitted a letter today notifying the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of violations of the Endangered Species Act in connection with the consultation process that the two agencies engaged in over the Scripps Briger Development of Regional Impact (DRI) Project in Palm Beach County, Florida.  The letter has been submitted by William S. Eubanks II of the Washington, D.C. public interest environmental law firm of Meyer Glitzenstein and Crystal.

As one of the last remaining sizable tracts of contiguous forested land in Palm Beach County, the project site is critical for various wildlife species including the federally protected eastern indigo snake.  With major highways and heavy development on all sides, the site plays a key role in providing habitat for numerous species which, simply put, have nowhere else to go.

However, in their Biological Opinion written for the project, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to account for the parcel's value as habitat or refuge for wildlife.  In authorizing construction and operation of a massive facility that will eliminate habitat for snakes and other wildlife on the parcel – leading to the eventual elimination of all remaining eastern indigo snakes, a federally listed threatened species, from the property – alternative ways of conserving the project site were not even considered.  Indeed, by failing to minimize deaths and injuries of eastern indigo snakes at all – let alone analyzing various ways that the agency could have minimized such deaths and injuries – the Service has failed to comply with its duties under the Endangered Species Act.

Christian Minaya of the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition said his group has had longstanding opposition to the development of this tract.  "Our vision for the future of the Briger Tract is one of preservation. A vital link to old Florida, a preserved Briger Tract will undoubtedly prove to be a precious resource for the continuation of biological diversity in the area, as well as a great boon for education and recreation for local residents."

Suki DeJong of the Palm Beach County Green Party echoed those remarks. "In the future we see the land being acquired through private and public funds, invasive species removed, the ecosystem restored to a natural state, and ultimately the whole area managed and kept for passive recreation. A living laboratory, the Briger Tract holds unfathomable potential as a teaching tool for the community as well as being a treasure trove for diverse science disciplines.  We believe it is time that Palm Beach County treasure and preserve its natural resources - not facilitate their destruction."

"As growth continues unabated in south Florida, the habitat available for wildlife shrinks at a steady rate", said Matthew Schwartz of the South Florida Wildlands Association.  "This puts our biodiversity at extreme risk.  For many species, rigorous enforcement of the Endangered Species Act is the only lifeline they have.  The Fish and Wildlife Service had many options here - including requiring changes to the development plan.  It's unfortunate that they gave a green light to complete destruction of habitat in this locale."

If you want to support this fight, please donate now.


Full text of the notice letter.
Exibits A, B, C, D.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Major Setback for Those Hoping to Develop Briger Forest!


A major component of the Scripps biotech plan, the research hospital backed by Tenet Healthcare, may not be feasible after a recent ruling by a Florida State Judge. 

In an article released recently from the Palm Beach Post, Staff Writer Stacy Singer reported that State Administrative Judge James H. Peterson, III strongly recommended the denial of the hospital's application with Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration (FAHCA) based on legal grounds. The Document in question is the Certificate of Need (CON) which is intended to justify that the new hospital is needed. Based on the judge's decision, the construction of the new hospital is not necessary.

The appeal against the CON of the Tenet hospital was filed by Jupiter Medical Center and West Palm Hospital who made claims that they would suffer severe economic loss with the construction of this new facility. As justification for the appeal, Jupiter Medical Center claimed to expect over $11 million in losses in the first year if the new hospital were built. The two hospitals in opposition to the project are within a few miles of the proposed Tenet hospital, and they can't even keep hospital beds full. In fact, South Florida Business Journal reported that only 54% percent of the beds are occupied and about 657 beds are empty every day. Furthermore, Tenet, one of the largest for profit hospital organizations in the country, already owns 60% of the hospitals in the northern Palm Beach County area and the addition of this new hospital would essentially provide them a monopoly over Palm Beach County's healthcare prices. It was the judge's opinion that this would likely increase insurance rates for customers in the area.

The judge also claimed that the Tenet hospital offered little to Scripps in its research and clinical trials beyond what other hospitals could provide. The CON claimed one of the hospital's primary functions would be to facilitate research from the Scripps lab being used in clinical trials. However, the Tenet hospital had prepared to have only one staff position dedicated to this task. According to the judges report, this was not the only claim made by Tenet Healthcare that was highly inflated. Although it was stated in the CON that this facility would become a world class medical research facility, the judge found that there was no evidence of this being the case. It is for these reasons that the judge issued the order that essentially denies the construction of the hospital.

Florida's Health Care Administration has 45 days from issuance of the recommendation to come to a decision on whether they will challenge the judge's official order. Though there is precedent for such action, it is unlikely. Especially since FAHCA's Secretary Liz Dudek didn't officially recommend the project's approval the first time around. Normally when a project is proposed it is recommended for approval or denial, but this one wasn't. In Dudek's own written words:

"There is no need for an additional small community hospital that offers basic services."

Tenet, Scripps, and the PBG government will likely have to appeal the judge's ruling in a Florida State Court of Appeals if they hope to see this decision overturned.

So, what does this mean for the Scripps Phase II project? Scripps wanted Tenet bad. A previous PBP article reported that the land that Tenet would be building on is owned by the county, but Scripps leases it from the county for $1 a year. A letter of Intent signed in 2011 between Tenet and Scripps would have Tenet lease the land from Scripps for $5 million dollars a year, profiting big off the benevolence of the county. Over the course of a 34 year lease, Scripps would have profited nearly $170 million from the proposed hospital. Scripps would also have had Tenet employees count towards their employee total, which is important for Scripps when demonstrating their job creation ability.  With the $310 million state grant for the Scripps Phase II/Briger project expiring this year, Scripps is likely to run into financial difficulties and the loss of revenue from this hospital could be disastrous for them. The CEO of Scripps, Michael Marletta, is quite disappointed in the decision, but says they will still try to get a hospital built on the county property.

Even Shannon Laroque, the Assistant County Administrator and Scripps Program Manager, is pretty upset about this. She pushed hard for this hospital to get approved and found it an integral part of Scripps Phase II. In a 2011 article she made it clear by saying,

"Every other successful biotech/biomedical industry cluster is 'anchored' with large non-profit research facilities, a major university, and a teaching/research hospital. We cannot realize a return on the very large investment made by the Board of County Commissioners and the State of Florida without it."

Additionally, The Kolter Group, the development firm looking to buy the portions of the Briger Forest not zoned for biotech, may not be as interested in becoming involved in light of the project's recent difficulties.
As upset as all these profiteers are, we in the fight to protect the Briger are thrilled! Councilman David Levy said this decision could set back development of the Briger property two or three years. If we have anything to say about it, those few years will turn into the permanent preservation of the land. We're still here to make sure they never break ground on this project. Keep it wild!

Voice your opinion. Tell Secretary Liz Dudek to respect the judicial order of Judge James H. Peterson, III and deny the Certificate of Need for the Tenet Healthcare Hospital by contacting her Chief of Staff:

Jenn Ungru, Chief of Staff- FAHCA
(850) 412-3606
Reference CON Application No. 10130

Extra sources:
The Sun Sentinel, Jupiter Medical Center, HCA Oppose Tenet/Scripps Medical Hospital

Palm Beach Post Blog, http://blogs.palmbeachpost.com/npbc/2013/05/03/gardens-council-react-to-tenet-hospital-rejection/

Sunshin State News, http://www.sunshinestatenews.com/story/scripps-jupiter-facility-falling-short-job-creation, Rockwell, L.

JMC Tenet Judge Order

Monday, February 25, 2013

Kolter in deal to buy Briger tract in Palm Beach Gardens


The push for this land purchase will not go unnoticed

 Below is an article from the Palm Beach Post highlighting the push to close a deal selling off Briger to Kolter Group Co. Nothing below acknowledges the long term resistance to this project such as the administrative challenge against the SFWMD's environmental resource permit,  the court challenge against the District Court of Appeals, the tree sit/forest occupation and the countless banners, signs and protests which have been held.  Kolter is a multifaceted developer investment corporation that can purchase and develop properties for the upper middle and upper class throughout Florida and other eastern states. Kolter's motive in this purchase is profit over native habitat. Don't let Kolter pave over the Briger Forest!

 

February 25, 2013

By Alexandra Clough

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
PALM BEACH GARDENS —
The Kolter Group Co. is under contract to buy the prized Briger tract in Palm Beach Gardens, according to a Palm Beach County official and several real estate sources. The deal, although not yet complete, is a big step forward in developing a prime tract set aside for a biotech research hub, an idea that first attracted the Scripps Research Institute to Florida.

The nearly 700-acre property is across the street from Scripps Florida on Donald Ross Road in the Abacoa development and is the largest piece of undeveloped land along Interstate 95 in Palm Beach County.

If Kolter closes on the deal, it is likely to get to work quickly on development, said Peter Reed, a principal with Commercial Florida Realty Services in Boca Raton. “This will help restart the market efforts of attracting other like-minded life science companies that want to cluster around there,” Reed said.
In 2010, the Briger tract was approved for 4 million square feet of biotech space.
In addition, the property is zoned for 1.2 million in office space, 500,000 square feet of retail and a 300-room hotel. Briger also is approved for plenty of housing, including 700 apartments, 1,400 multifamily homes and 600 single-family homes. The development would amount to about 170 acres for Scripps and bio-tech spin-offs, plus 500 acres for an Abacoa-like setup of shops, offices, a hotel and homes.
The approvals were obtained in 2010, but nothing has happened on the site until now.
“We think it’s great,” Shannon LaRocque, Palm Beach County assistant administrator said of the proposed Kolter purchase. “It’s critical to get a development partner and Kolter is a good one.”
A Kolter executive declined to comment. The Lester family, which owns the Briger tract, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

But several real estate sources said the deal is in the due diligence stage and a closing could come soon.
While no one knows the purchase price, estimates of $100 million — or more — seem likely, real estate pros say. One developer said the price could be as high as $125 million to $150 million.
Reed said Kolter is a smart choice. “Kolter is a known developer who comes without any question on their ability to perform, so you want that type of horsepower,” Reed said.

Kolter built One City Plaza and Two City Place condos in downtown West Palm Beach, has built Hyatt Place hotels in West Palm Beach and Delray Beach, and is building a luxury condominium in Gulfstream. It also is set to start building a luxury high-rise in North Palm Beach. Kolter has built several multifamily communities.

Real estate experts said the Kolter purchase would change the landscape of Palm Beach Gardens.
“Wow,” said Rebel Cook of Rebel Cook Real Estate in Jupiter. “I think it’s an amazing piece and will just add more economic growth to the area,” added Cook, who also serves as president of the Economic Forum, a Palm Beach County business group.
Richard M. Rendina, chairman of The Rendina Cos. of Jupiter, agreed that the in-town land is very important.

“The Briger tract is a great piece of entitled dirt,” Rendina said.
Before Scripps and the entitlements were in place at Briger, Rendina said his father, the late Bruce Rendina, tried to buy the property from the Lester family. Bruce Rendina was instrumental in bringing Scripps to Abacoa, which he helped develop.

Rendina said his company and Abacoa would be great neighbors. Additionally, if Kolter wanted a partner to develop the commercial, medical or biotech components, “we would be interested in joining forces,” said Rendina, whose company builds medical office buildings nationwide.

Indeed, Cook said medical office space remains in demand. That will likely increase if an admistrative law judge recommends to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration that it approve a $120 million, 80-bed teaching and research medical center on the Scripps part of the Briger property.
LaRocque said the judge’s decision, which is not binding to the agency, appears imminent.
The agency previously approved the project, but nearby hospitals, such as Jupiter Medical Center, appealed the decision, saying a new hospital is not needed.

Palm Beach County purchased 40 acres on the Briger site to allow Scripps to expand, and the Lester family donated 30 acres, LaRocque said. These 70 acres sit inside the part of the Briger parcel allocated for biotech development.

LaRocque said the teaching facility, a joint venture between Scripps and hospital giant Tenet, is not a hospital in the classic sense, but is an academic medical center for teaching and drug discovery, in collaboration with Scripps and Florida Atlantic University. The hospital, now known as the Florida Regional Medical Center, would feature 80 beds and collaborate with FAU’s new medical school.

—————————————————————
Plans are afoot to redo the old Home Depot Expo building in Boynton Beach.
Retail broker Dan Lynch, of Atlantic Retail Properties, said the property’s new buyer is considering subdividing the 90,000 square foot space into two or three spaces. The property was sold to Boynton Expo Investors LLC for $5.1 million by Home Depot last year.
Lynch said he’s talking to a number of “junior” anchors that would be complementary to the Home Depot next door.
Making the space more attractive are plans to raise elevations on the back of the building so it is more visible from Interstate 95, Lynch said.
Alexandra Clough writes about the economy, real estate and the law. Contact her at aclough@pbpost.com

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Eagle Training Center Landbroker pleads Guilty to 6 counts of Fraud

In 2009, PBCEC and Everglades Earth First! helped in the victory against the Eagle Creek Military training center in Highlands County. Just recently, Greg Eagle, the person who spearheaded the training center was found to have committed a $19million loan scandal leading in a class action lawsuit against him and his pleading of guilty to 6 counts of Fraud. Read below from WINK for more details:

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Cape Coral realtor Greg Eagle has pleaded guilty to six federal counts of fraud after authorities say he forged documents and cost his investors millions of dollars. Each of the six charges carries a maximum of thirty years in federal prison.

This story begins more than twenty years ago and includes bad financial bets, falsified documents and millions of dollars that were lost.

In June of 1990, 52 investors bought a 101 acre property along Pine Island Road in Cape Coral for nearly $3 million. It was called the Pine Island 101 Land Trust.

Attorney Mark Trank is representing the 52 investors in a separate class-action lawsuit.

"It is good news, we've been waiting for this news for quite a long time," Trank said.

"This was a scheme that (Eagle) engaged in and as result the 50 plus investors in the Pine Island Trust have lost their investment and in many cases people have lost their life savings," said Trank.

In November of 2011, WINK News first introduced you to Dr. Charles Curtis, one of the investors.

"I'm sure it's affecting a lot of people and we would like to know how something like this can happen."

Curtis and other investors came together to buy the land, as they could buy more as a group than individually. Greg Eagle was put in charge of the land trust.

The investors were expecting a big payday when they would eventually sell the land. But that payday never came.

According to his plea deal in federal court, Eagle forged the documents on the trust to take out a $17 million mortgage in order to fund another project. He thought it was a can't-lost deal that would bring a homeland security training facility to Florida. But he did lose. The project fell through and Eagle never paid the loan.

The bank that issued the loan, First National Bank of Pennsylvania, filed for foreclosure on the property.

Curtis and other investors received a letter in the spring of 2011 from Eagle, saying "there is no excuse for what I have done with mortgaging the property for $17 million."

Eagle has also agreed to forfeit all his assets immediately and pay his 52 victims restitution. Though it's not clear how much they'll get, as Eagle lost nearly $40 million when the Homeland Security project fell through.

Meanwhile, Trank expects the class-action lawsuit to go to trial this year. He hopes his investors will at least be able to hold onto the property, which is worth millions.