Plans are afoot to dramatically relax Florida’s already business-friendly pollution permit system, according to internal documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). What is sacrificed in this ongoing transformation is both the environmentally protective power of the permits and the ability to enforce what few restrictions may remain.
Currently, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issues two types of permits: one is an individual permit tailored to the particular enterprise with multiple conditions and can be lengthy. The other is “general permitting” which essentially provides a summary approval, akin to registration. General permits are by rule only for “activities which cause minimal adverse environmental impact.” They tend to carry limited conditions and are very short. DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard is pushing to convert much of pollution permitting into general permits to help realize “the Governor’s [Rick Scott’s] vision of a streamlined, customer service based state agency,” per an agency Strategic Planning announcement. For example, the idea is to issue general permits for such things as asphalt plants, concrete batch plants, underground storage systems (petroleum tanks) and citrus facilities. In this vein, DEP is also working to –
- Eliminate “standards and minimum criteria” for pollutants agency managers deem “do not have much, if any, impact on human health. Examples are Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), iron and ammonia.” These substances, however, do harm wildlife, water, air and soil quality;
- Collapse all permits (air, water, waste, etc.) into a single “cradle-to-grave” general permit; and
- Move to industry self-regulation by “shifting away from developing permit rules and conditions to address the worst offenders,” in the words of one DEP planning memo.
“No matter how slimy, if it moves it will qualify for a permit in Florida,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney. “It will be difficult to enforce these permits because they are so general they lack enforceable terms.”
This move away from enforceable permits is reflected in the recent suspension of a top DEP specialist, Connie Bersok, reportedly for refusing to issue a permit without verified wetlands credits. Many DEP staffers have been stripped of civil service protection, a factor now being exploited to quiet internal objections. “Nothing motivates people like losing a job,” remarked one senior DEP manager in meeting notes.
This emphasis on “customer service” also means that environmental compliance would be negotiated behind closed doors. One tactic would be to set up industry councils “to solve problems/build consensus” which also has the advantage that “Non-public entity groups avoid sunshine laws,” according to notes drafted by Jeff Littlejohn, the DEP second-in-command and Deputy Secretary for Regulatory Programs.
“The emerging philosophy at DEP can be summarized as ‘No standards, no scrutiny, no problem’,” Phillips added, pointing out that Florida is already tussling with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for being too lax in water quality standards. “Florida is supposed to be administering federally delegated anti-pollution laws but these new moves seem hell-bent to violate minimum federal standards and generate new rounds of litigation.”
EPA is also examining whether Secretary Vinyard should be disqualified from all clean water permitting decisions due to his prior industry ties, following a complaint lodged by PEER and the Florida Clean Water Network.