The sheriff’s offices in Glades, Hendry and Palm Beach counties are investigating veiled threats that have been made online toward some residents of communities along Lake Okeechobee over water pollution issues affecting the coasts.
A running cyber-debate over responsibility for algae blooms in the Caloosahatchee River and red tide along Gulf Coast communities in Southwest Florida has been going on via several Facebook pages whose owners have been actively posting articles and opinions about the issue. They have been attracting activists on all sides who’ve jumped in to make comments. But apparently some have crossed the line between mere commentary and remarks that may be intended or could be taken as threats.
The authorities, and prominent activists, are taking them seriously. Hendry County Sheriff Steve Whidden and Glades County Sheriff David Hardin issued a joint statement on Friday, Aug. 3, about the internet posts: “We are aware of a series of threats made online against the people in our community from several activists related to the coastal water issues. We are looking into each of these threats individually, and will determine whether action will need to be taken on a case-by-case basis. We take every threat seriously, and any individual planning to do harm against our communities will be investigated and punished to the fullest extent of the law.
“If you have any information regarding threats made against our communities online, please report them by contacting the Hendry and Glades County Sheriffs Offices directly.” The numbers to call are: Hendry County Sheriff’s Office, 863-674-5600; Glades County Sheriff’s Office, 863-946-1600; Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, District 5 (Belle Glade), 561-996-1670. All three offices said anyone who feels any threat has been made directly against them also should call. Borderline comments have appeared in different strings on the Facebook pages of The South Florida Clean Water Movement, Glades Lives Matter Too and the Lake O (Business) Alliance, to name just a few. Janet Taylor, a former Hendry County commissioner, founded the group Glades Lives Matter in 2016 to be a voice for residents in cities around the southern rim of Lake Okeechobee — Belle Glade, Clewiston, Moore Haven, Pahokee and South Bay. Hers has been a steady voice on citizens’ and farmers’ behalf in the debate over how to stop the severe algae blooms that occurred that year and have returned with a vengeance to both coasts after Hurricane Irma stirred up the lake waters 11 months ago.
Ms. Taylor said Tuesday that she personally hadn’t experienced any threats; however, she’s very concerned about them. “I just left the sheriff’s department in LaBelle. I went (there) because I told them … to me, this is a terrorist attack, the threats are. I know locally they’re (investigating) but I think we need to have FDLE and the FBI in here, because online, you don’t know where those people are stating those threats from.
“Anything that’s a threat to our community is a personal threat to me,” she finished.
Tammy Jackson-Moore, a member of the Lake Okeechobee Regional Economic Alliance of Palm Beach County and founder of Guardians of the Glades, was asked Tuesday whether she’d been threatened. “Not personally,” she replied. “But, you know, when we hear the threats that we’ve heard, it’s against the community, and all of us are a part of the community, so the entire community has been threatened.”
Sheriff Steve Whidden in Hendry was quoted as saying the threatening language was posted by several vocal people online and were generally aimed at people living near Lake Okeechobee. One person blamed the sugar industry for causing the problems and declared they’d show up “2nd Amendment in hand.” Another said protesters should gather near the lake “to draw police,” “take physical action” on Lake Okeechobee and said “I got a welder and an AR (assault rifle) but it’s gonna take a big group to stand up to local law enforcement.”
Many along the coasts of South Florida have been blaming the released lake waters themselves for causing the blooms this summer, and even for the red tide that has ravaged marine life along gulf shores. Several scientists who have studied the algae and red tide outbreaks, however, have maintained that Lake O discharges play only a bit part in these phenomena. They say that runoff from residential septic systems, lawns and farm fields where best management practices are not being used — along the many miles between the coasts and Lake O, which drains into the St. Lucie and canals on the east and the Caloosahatchee River and other canals on the west — is a bigger contributor to the problems.
Glades Sheriff David Harden said Tuesday he hadn’t received any specific reports of threats, but that his and the other sheriff’s offices will be looking into any reported threats individually to decide whether they need to take action against the threateners.