Tallahassee — Florida is significantly more lenient with polluters than in the past, according to a new analysis of the past 20 years of enforcement statistics released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The result is that violators in the Sunshine State more often get away with paying small fines without even a requirement to clean up pollution or follow up to make sure the violation is not continuing.
The new analysis, titled Report on Enforcement Efforts by the Florida Department of Environmental protection: A Historical Perspective, is a detailed breakdown of data from 1988 to present on how the Florida DEP treats violators. The report also analyzes enforcement performance for each DEP program.
“The data show that there actually were good old days for pollution control in Florida,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney. “Unfortunately, those good old days are long gone, replaced by a paper pushing system that has no teeth.”
The significant increase in Florida’s population over the period has resulted in an increase in the total number of state environmental enforcement cases but the effectiveness of that enforcement activity has declined. As measures, the report points to –
- A significant drop in requirements that violators perform restoration or other actions that actually reduce the pollution discharges;
- The amount of penalties assessed for pollution violations, when adjusted for inflation, is now lower than it was 20 years ago. The Florida Legislature compounded the problem when it set penalty schedules in 2001 that all but guaranteed polluters would continue to pay lower fines; and
- The percentage of penalties actually collected for state coffers has also been in a downward trend.
“If the state does not even collect the modest fines that it assesses, one has to ask what is the point?” added Phillips, noting that the lost revenue from uncollected penalties further aggravates DEP budget shortfalls. “The cumulative effect of lax enforcement makes Florida a less attractive place to live.”
DEP itself appears to recognize the growing ineffectiveness of its enforcement program. On July 18, 2007, DEP Secretary Michael Sole unveiled a new civil pollution fine schedule, declaring “I want to change the idea that ‘penalties are a cost of doing business’ by emphasizing the agency’s tough stance against violators.” That new schedule does not appear to have reversed the sagging enforcement drift
“In Florida, state penalties remain an acceptable cost of doing business as usual precisely because DEP does not employ the enforcement tools that it has long had at its disposal,” Phillips concluded.