We take modern amenities for granted. When we flip a switch in our homes, we expect the lights to come on. But if you're in New Orleans or another American city struggling with its energy infrastructure, that might not always be the case. When we take the trash out, we expect the fees we pay to our respective municipalities will cover the costs. It doesn't always work that way, as a new piece in Scalawag and Southerly—featured below—demonstrates. And when we flush a toilet, we expect our wastewater to be managed. In Florida, that's not always so. 

That's why I brought back one-time guest and long-time friend, Chuck O'Neal, for this week's Salt, Soil, & Supper installment. O'Neal is a former candidate for the Florida Senate, an unabashed environmentalist, and the chairman of the Right to Clean Water Political Committee, a group that campaigned for passage of a rights of nature charter amendment in Orlando and surrounding Orange County. Some 89 percent of the county's voters approved of the Right to Clean Water Amendment last year, making Orange County the largest U.S municipality to pass a rights of nature ordinance. It's an impressive feat, given the water they've been forced to tread while doing it. This week, we're talking about their group's new project: a statewide 2024 rights of nature amendment

Xander Peters: In terms of your group's Right to Clean Water Initiative, how is it an evolution of your original local rights of nature campaigns that y'all launched a couple years back?

Chuck O'Neal: Yeah, the Orange County Right to Clean Water Initiative. While we we were in the process of moving that through the Charter Review Commission, the Florida Legislature slipped a paragraph into a bill called the Clean Waterways Act, SB 712, in 2020, that forbids local governments from passing any ordinances or charter amendments that recognize the rights of any plant, animal, or body of water. That was the kill shot preemption to try to stop what we're doing in the state, because at the time we were working with about 30 different municipalities and counties to pass one or more versions of the Right To Clean Water. So, in order to preempt the preemption, we started this statewide amendment campaign to put it in the state constitution, because the state constitution—for lack of a better word—trumps state law. We fashioned a statewide version based on the Orange County version and launched that, but we didn't have much runway to get that off the ground. We had about six months to get 891,000 signatures, which is a very, very daunting task. 

XP: And that would've been to qualify for the 2022 ballot?

CO: To qualify for 2022, exactly. You really need to get them in by November 30 so there's time to process them, and for the supervisors of elections to verify each signature on each condition. We collected somewhere over 5,000, but you've got to advertise and get the word out there and have paid staff to get to 891,000. None of the other petitions have gotten close to 891,000, even the gambling casino petitions. There are only around 150,000 to 200,000 [signatures for the casinos], and that's after spending money. One of the problems with COVID, which is not readily apparent, is that the price per petition is going up astronomically, because you got people who don't want to expose themselves. We stopped going door to door in August. It's just through the website. It was $2 to $3 per petition, now it's $8 to $10 per petition. So, if you multiply that by 891,000, that's a lot of shekels. 

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XP: At that point, you need John Morgan money.

CO: You would have to be John Morgan to make that happen. [LAUGHS] 

But what we're hoping for is next time around. We're transitioning into the 2024 campaign. We'll be able to navigate COVID so long as we can get the word out to the millions of voters who I feel would sign this if they knew about it. That's the real problem… We did ask the secretary of state if we could use electronic signatures, because in 2020, due to COVID  they allowed electronic signatures for candidates who were trying to qualify for the ballot, in order to gather their requisite number. So, we asked the secretary of state, [saying], 'COVID numbers are now higher than they were last year, can we use electronic signatures like you authorized last year?' No, can't do it. 

That presents a problem. COVID has really impacted democracy—small-d democracy—in big ways. Number one, you have fewer people gathering in large groups in order to get citizen initiatives on ballots. That's tough. The other thing that's happened is public comment at meetings has been affected, because a lot of meetings are being held virtually, and you don't really have the same opportunity to give public comment. So, democracy is taking a hit in a lot of different ways, and what we have to do is find a way to bring back these forms of citizen initiatives, so that democracy can thrive. I believe the way to do that is to allow for some type of electronic petition gathering. That is difficult, because it depends on the legislature to authorize that, and the Florida legislature does not like sharing power with the citizens to enable citizens initiatives to move forward. 

XP: Speaking of democracy, I noticed the statewide effort was endorsed by Florida agriculture commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide elected Democrat. How do you think her support helps further y'all's message? 

CO: Well, a few months back, [former Florida governor and congressman] Charlie Crist put out his Clean Water Initiative plan. In that plan, he numerated support for a right to clean water amendment. So, he had already come out in favor of this months ago. Nikki Fried had not mentioned it. That's why I kind of nailed her out in the lobby, and just asked her straight up. She was, like, fully supportive. She was like, 'Why would you even ask me? Of course.' But we hadn't heard from her. So, it was good to get that from her. 

Now, in Orange County, as you remember, we got 89 percent of the vote [on the local rights of nature amendment in 2020]. That's not just Democrats. It's Democrats, Republicans, NPAs, in probably the most partisan election of our time, Trump versus Biden. So, I believe that clean water is a nonpartisan issue. We've tried to keep the campaign as nonpartisan as possible. Certainly, if [Florida Governor] Ron DeSantis would come out and endorse the right to clean water, that would be a great thing. But as we move along, who knows that might happen? He has been very supportive of the Everglades.

But there's more to the state than the Everglades. We've got many regions that are suffering from water quality issues. Southwest Florida, being just one with the pollution from Lake Okeechobee, that's centered in the Caloosahatchee River, comes down and pollutes the Fort Myers area. Then you have the Indian River Lagoon, and the manatees.  

XP: I remember reporting on how poor of shape the Indian River Lagoon is these days.

CO: The area where [the manatees] died was subjected to a break in an actual wastewater treatment facility, a line for the city of Titusville that dumped millions of gallons of raw sewage into the northern Indian River Lagoon. I mean, that was just nasty. But you're actually right, the Indian River Lagoon is a septic tank wastewater treatment facility gone wild. Back 20, 30, 40 years ago, when there was a limited number of people over there, that was one thing. But it's so low over there, that when you put a septic tank in the ground, you're right at the water table. So, nitrates and phosphates go into the water, and that surficial aquifer carries it straight out into the lagoon.

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So, we have these massive challenges, largely due to the growth rate of the state. I know it's been said over and over again that we're getting 1,000 people a day moving to the state, but someone told me yesterday that because of COVID, that number is more like 2,000 people a day. That's a lot of people requiring food to be grown, and a lot of people producing wastewater. Florida just wasn't designed geologically to support 20 million people. If we're going to kind of preserve our clean water, our lakes and beaches and rivers, lagoons and estuaries, we have to change at the same rate that the population is changing. We have to keep up with this massive growth through a massive undertaking in upgrading our infrastructure to reduce these pollutants that we're emitting into the waters of Florida.

XP: I read that one columnist called the right to clean water campaign "anti-human." That's laughable. How are you having this conversation with constituents when there's so much nonsense from opposition?

CO: [LAUGHS] He's not even a newspaper columnist. This environmental board, they have a guy who runs an organization that has a similar focus. Anti-human… [LAUGHS] I guess one of the problems of today's society—like you said, it's a societal issue—is that any idiot with an iPhone can get on YouTube and start spouting a lot of nonsense that's just absolutely false. As someone once told me a long time ago, "a lie you can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on." That is so much the case today. But all we can do is keep telling the truth, saying the facts, and let people decide if they've seen that the right to clean water in Orange County has diminished humanity. Where? In what way? 

In my opinion, it's returned us closer to, if you look at in Judeo-Christian values, to the values espoused in Genesis, that we have not just this ability to dominate nature, but we have a responsibility of stewardship over nature, and we have to protect nature, because we have been given these gifts of reason—well, most of us been given this gift of reason. 


CO: From an Indigenous aspect, nature is a being, it represents beings; we are just trying to develop a sense of respect for [it]. So, if you look at it from a religious or an Indigenous aspect, what we're doing is not diminishing humans. It's honoring creation. It's honoring the souls that we share this planet with.

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Xander Peters is a freelance writer living in New Orleans. His work appeared in Rolling Stone, Reason, and Earther, among others.