PRESS RELEASE

Florida Pollution Enforcement Fell into COVID Coma   

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For Immediate Release: Wednesday, September 15, 2021
Contact:  Jerry Phillips (850) 877-8097; Kirsten Stade kstade@peer.org

Florida Pollution Enforcement Fell into COVID Coma

Inspections and Eco-Compliance Tumbled in 2020 among Enforcement Gaps

Tallahassee — Florida’s anti-pollution enforcement efforts approached all-time lows in several areas during 2020 with some disastrous gaps, such as phospho-gypsum mining, according to a new analysis of state enforcement figures by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The data indicate that under Governor Ron DeSantis, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has reduced both its field presence and the strength of its enforcement actions.

The 2020 DEP enforcement statistics reveal that –

  • The number of DEP inspections fell in every major program, save one. There were steep decreases in inspections in the dredge and fill and domestic wastewater programs while inspections of potable water facilities plummeted 75% from the prior year;
  • Despite fewer inspections, more violations were found.  Industry compliance rates fell to 59% in 2020, while significant noncompliance rose. Little more than a third (34%) of domestic wastewater facilities were found in compliance during 2020 as were only 36% of potable water facilities, down from  43% in 2019.  Compliance rates also fell sharply in the dredge and fill, hazardous waste, and solid waste programs; and
  • DEP use of “short-form” enforcement orders, which are resolved by payment of a fine and no oversight to ensure the problem has been fixed, almost doubled last year in both numbers and percentage of all enforcement actions.

Over 120 million gallons of wastewater and other chemicals have spewed onto Florida’s roads, lawns and surface waters in 2020 across just 12 of Florida’s 67 counties. Out of the 120 million gallons discharged, over 109 million were reported as going to Florida’s surface waters.

“Rather than seeking major reductions in our pollution load, DEP’s reliance on small fines makes pollution an acceptable cost of doing business,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney who compiled the analysis, noting that DEP Headquarters took enforcement actions in only 4 of 619 violations it reviewed. “In Florida, you now almost have a better chance of winning the state lottery than a polluter facing prosecution.”

Disturbingly, in some areas, DEP took no enforcement actions at all. Despite the massive phospho-gypsum spill into Tampa Bay this spring, DEP inspected not a single phospho-gypsum mining facility and took no enforcement actions during 2020 but nonetheless reported a 96% rate of compliance.  Of all major DEP programs, mining had the lowest enforcement rate.

“The enforcement pattern in Florida is reacting to pollution disasters after they occur rather than taking steps to prevent them,” Phillips added.

Even the bits of good news caried big caveats. The data from 2020 confirms that last year there was an uptick in the total penalty dollars assessed but the median penalty assessments across all program areas fell by 20%.  DEP also collected more penalty dollars but the actual percentage of penalty dollars collected fell by more than one third (35.6%).

“Overall, the data suggest a strong correlation between enforcement and compliance but, unfortunately, the level of enforcement activity in our state remains largely minimal and erratic,” Phillips concluded.

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Read the new PEER enforcement analysis  

View enforcement reports for prior years 

See rise in Florida’s environmental noncompliance during past five years