Tallahassee — Florida Governor Rick Scott’s new environmental platform calls for raising maximum fines well above “ridiculous” current levels, yet polluters are not assessed anywhere near maximum fines while a large portion get no fine at all, according to the latest state figures compiled by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In fact, the number of violators given any civil assessment has plummeted to a record low, as has the total amount of penalty dollars assessed.
Records released to PEER from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for 2013 show civil penalties were assessed in only 62% of enforcement actions and in those cases:
• There were only 130 assessments all year, less than one-tenth the number of assessments issued as late as 2010, when Scott was elected, the beginning of a steep slide in penalty assessments;
• The total amount of assessments was a paltry $1.4 million, compared with $12.3 million assessed in 2007, an 88% drop-off; and
• The median civil assessment was less than $3,000, a slight increase but the numbers are so low they stretch statistical significance. Only three corporate violators merited six-figure assessments with none of those three more than $200,000.
Since not all these assessments have been or will be actually collected, these small totals may diminish further. The falling assessments also adversely affect the DEP budget because lower penalty revenue will mean less financial support for inspections and other enforcement activity the agency can conduct.
“Environmental protection in Florida has entered a death spiral under Governor Scott,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney who compiled the figures, noting that in some DEP districts and pollution programs there were no or only one or two assessments all year. “DEP has put away its big stick and is barely wielding a toothpick.”
These figures also undercut Gov. Scott’s “Keep Florida Beautiful” campaign claim that much higher maximum fines are needed to handle “bad actors.” Under current law, DEP may charge up to $10,000 per day for each violation. Moreover, each day any portion of a violation occurs is a separate violation. Since many violations are longstanding in nature, many violators could be assessed hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. Moreover, criminal penalties apply to intentional violators, carrying bigger fines and the even more daunting sanction of prison sentences.
“Since no polluters are assessed anywhere near the maximum fine, how will raising those maximums make a bit of difference?” asked Phillips, pointing out that Scott’s DEP appointees have put out directives discouraging staff from pursuing enforcement action of any kind. “In today’s DEP, inspectors must cast a profile in courage just to issue a letter of warning, let alone an actual penalty.”