TALLAHASSEE, Fla.--Enforcement actions taken against polluting Florida corporations have declined dramatically during the past decade, according to state agency data released today by Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Florida PEER). Records obtained from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) indicate that while the number of cases opened against polluting companies has remained about the same, punishments have dropped off precipitously, and the largest violators receive only a slap on the wrist.
The data, obtained by Florida PEER from the DEP Office of General Counsel, show that Florida's principal pollution enforcement agency
Has abandoned clean-up orders. DEP has moved away from long form consent orders, which require companies to clean up the air, water and hazardous waste pollution they generate. Instead, DEP now relies almost exclusively on short form consent orders, which typically levy smaller fines without any requirement that clean-ups occur. When short form consent orders were first used by DEP in 1990, seven out of ten enforcement cases continued to utilize the stronger long forms. By 2002, fewer than one in five cases used long forms;
Ignores the biggest polluters. Florida PEER's analysis of the 14 Florida corporations currently designated as Significant Non Compliers (SNCs) of industrial and domestic wastewater discharges shows that not a single one has a current DEP enforcement action against it. (SNCs are companies that have had multiple violations over extended periods);
Routinely drops fines against big violators. DEP often forgives penalties against SNCs as soon as they "achieve compliance" by putting a halt to their polluting, even if the change is temporary. For example, paper company Jefferson Smurfitt Corp. had thirteen prior violations, yet when it was caught polluting again this year DEP indicated that it would not seek enforcement action and instead would wait for the company to achieve compliance.
"This administration throws the book at "mom and pop" violators but lets big corporations off the hook," commented Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney. "If a habitual thief avoided punishment by simply giving back stolen property each time he was caught, most would say that the system was broken, but that is precisely what is going on every day at DEP."
Florida PEER, a watchdog organization that represents employees inside environmental agencies, has reopened its state office in Tallahassee this June. "Bringing this sort of inside data to the public is at the heart of PEER's mission," said Phillips. "Our job is to bring the back room deals to the front page."
Read Florida PEER's DEP Enforcement Report
Read Regional Enforcement Examples from around the state