Tallahassee — The Florida Department of Environmental Protection is seeking to punish a laboratory manager because the water pollution data he reported was not ambiguous enough, according to documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The data in question concerns pollution levels in most of South Florida’s key water-bodies, including the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie Estuary.
In a letter dated January 3, 2007, Kevin Neal, who has since resigned as Director of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Southeast District, charged Thomas White, the manager of the agency’s Port St. Lucie laboratory, with “generating and reporting deceptive or fraudulent lab results” solely due to his lab’s low usage of “Data Qualifiers,” descriptions of data limitations. Despite use of words like “fraudulent,” DEP is not contending that any data entered by White’s lab were falsified or manipulated – only that certain technical codes were not appended.
White’s lab showed water pollution levels so high that, in some cases, samples had to be substantially diluted just to get them on scale for instrument concentration determination. These profound pollution levels make the issue of Data Qualifiers largely irrelevant to the purpose for which the data is used – establishing whether water-bodies are considered impaired for purposes of the Clean Water Act.
If DEP persists in indicting all of the Port St. Lucie lab work, more than five years of detailed water quality monitoring data on virtually every large South Florida canal, estuary and other watercourses will be invalidated. This would dramatically set back efforts to reduce pollution in places like the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee, as the main evidence these bodies exceeded pollution limits would be thrown out.
“These charges are utterly ridiculous; in essence, DEP is saying that the water pollution numbers are too awful to be true,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney, whose organization is putting together a defense team for White. “Unfortunately, Tom White is collateral damage in a deranged effort by top DEP management to disrupt critical water pollution tracking systems.”
White became manager of the Port St. Lucie lab in 2004. Under White, the lab, for the first time, won certification from the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Conference (NELAC). White, who has worked for DEP for 20 years, virtually all in agency laboratories, is one of the auditors DEP has used to review the work of other labs.
The charges against White are especially curious in that all of the information needed to add any Data Qualifiers have been entered into the system during White’s tenure, so that all the lab reports could be supplemented as needed. White contends that the reporting methods he used were mandated by his predecessor and never countermanded in the years since.
“We are asking Governor Crist’s office to take a long look at this before the case proceeds any further,” Phillips added. “DEP has become a cesspool in need of a thorough cleaning and the managers behind these charges should be the first people asked to leave.”
White will meet today with senior DEP at the West Palm Beach office to learn what action, up to and including termination, the agency will take against him.