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For Immediate Release: Jun 07, 2004
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

DEP GAVE PANAMA CITY DISPOSAL PERMIT TO SHELL OF COMPANY UNDER INDICTMENT

ompany's Directors Convicted of Fraud in Alabama; Assets Subject to Forfeiture


Washington, DC -- The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a permit to the Big Wheel Construction & Debris Facility in Bay County even though the company was not registered with the Florida, Department of State. Moreover, the company that owned the property at the time, Big Wheel Recycling, was under indictment for multiple counts of fraud in Alabama, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). After the company was convicted and its assets subject to forfeiture, DEP allowed the transfer of the permit to a company (Aztec Environmental, Inc.) that has no ownership interest in the site where the disposal facility operates.

The tangled legal web of Big Wheel reached Florida in the form of one powerful attorney and one prominent businessman, both with close ties to the Jeb Bush Administration. For six months following the convictions of directors of Big Wheel in Alabama (January to July 2003), local attorneys William Harrison, Jr. and Randall McElheney were directors of the Florida company, Big Wheel Recycling of Florida. The latter company now owns the property upon which the landfill is operated.

"Florida DEP did not perform even a basic due diligence examination into the background of this company before issuing it a permit," stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former enforcement attorney for DEP. Florida PEER has earlier filed complaints about groundwater contamination and illegal asbestos disposal at the site. "This Big Wheel keeps on turning and with each turn something else unsavory pops out."

In addition, in December 2002, the Panama City Branch Office Manager for DEP, was removed and the person applying to replace him was told to interview with William Harrison before a decision was made on his promotion application. Following the interview with Harrison, at the same time that Harrison was a director of the Florida Big Wheel operation, Henry Hernandez was approved for the job. The environmental violations that had been previously cited by local FDEP employees were never pursued.

"Under the civil service rules that Jeb Bush has enacted, we see that the industry now has approval power over who is appointed to run the pollution police," added Phillips who has been investigating the agency's enforcement policies and performance for the past year. "At the same time, if a DEP employee takes enforcement action against a company with political connections, that employee's tenure with the agency is likely to be short lived."

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Read about the tangled corporate web surrounding Big Wheel

Read the PEER report on asbestos violations at Big Wheel

View summary of the DEP enforcement file on water contamination at Big Wheel