Tallahassee — The State of Florida has declared total victory in the battle to protect the environment, thus justifying plummeting penalties, less protective permits and significantly fewer staff to administer either, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). To reflect its self-diminished workload, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has begun to shed up to one-fifth of its already shrinking workforce, starting in its largest district office in Tampa.
In defending DEP against a June PEER analysis showing an implosion in agency anti-pollution enforcement, Jeff Littlejohn, the DEP Deputy Secretary for Regulatory Programs and the number two official at the agency, argued in an op-ed that there was little need for enforcement because industry compliance was so remarkably high:
“Compliance rates across the department’s regulatory programs are generally 90 percent or higher… Statewide, we’ve seen the rate for significant noncompliance in hazardous waste facilities drop from almost 10 percent in 2009 to about 2 percent so far this year. This improvement has been accomplished even as total penalty amounts in that program have decreased significantly… And, as compliance goes up, overall penalty collections may, in fact, go down. DEP is not in the business of collecting money…”
When PEER asked DEP to produce the records behind Littlejohn’s claims, it was unable to do so. Instead, it produced one Excel spreadsheet showing alleged results from 2011. The spreadsheet had been created after Littlejohn penned the op-ed. Yet, Littlejohn’s statements may become self-fulfilling since he issued a memo in November 2011 directing staff to refrain from taking enforcement action except as a last resort.
These changes are not only affecting department practices but the configuration of the agency itself. In an August 29, 2012 memo, DEP Southwest District Director Mary Yeargan announced a reduction in force of more than one-fifth of staff in her Tampa office due to reduced workloads. She stated that a similar “reorganization will occur in all District offices.”
“This is fantasy masquerading as public policy. It is like laying off traffic cops because speeders promise to observe posted limits rather than pay a ticket,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney, noting that a similar relaxation of pollution permitting policies has also made it difficult to show noncompliance. “Of course, if pollution violators are all allowed do-overs as a matter of course, only a blithering idiot will ever be tagged with a violation in Florida, no matter how much damage has been done to our environment.”
PEER is pursuing a complaint against Littlejohn for violating federal conflict of interest prohibitions due to his corporate environmental work prior to his appointment at DEP. Under his tenure, corporations that run into environmental trouble have been able to go to Littlejohn to obtain “resolution.”
“This is the fox turning the henhouse into a Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Phillips added. “Environmental protection in Florida has moved from a grudging retreat into a full-blown rout.”