Florida Pollution Enforcement in Paralysis
Cases and Fines Nosedive to Record Low Levels; Penalties Collected Fall 70%
Tallahassee — Enforcement of anti-pollution laws in Florida have plummeted to historic low levels during the second full year of Governor Rick Scott’s tenure, according to agency figures released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Unprecedented deep across-the-board declines occurred in all areas of enforcement activity in nearly every district and division within the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
This precipitous fall-off in cases brought, enforcement orders, and fines assessed and collected during 2012 comes on top of significant drops in these measures in 2011. This steep slide appears to reflect directives by Gov. Scott’s DEP that staff should avoid pursuing enforcement action if at all possible. At the same time, DEP has been roiled by demoralizing and selective layoffs targeting staff with enforcement duties.
“These latest figures document a jaw-dropping abdication of pollution protections in Florida,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney, who conducted the analysis. “If Florida is in a race to the bottom, it has reached the basement.” The DEP figures show that in 2012 –
- Pollution penalties collected fell 70% in just one year, contributing to an 81% drop in payments from polluters since 2010. At the same time, commitments from violators for alternatives to fines, such as in-kind and “penalty prevention projects,” also dropped by nearly-two-thirds (65%);
- The number of enforcement consent orders issued was the lowest in DEP history; and
- The total number of new cases opened by DEP dipped by 42% in 2012, off 58% since 2010.
When confronted with this trend, DEP officials allege that lower enforcement is a function of heightened compliance by regulated industries. DEP has not been able to support these assertions, however.
“If you believe that gutting enforcement leads to fewer pollution violations, I’ve got some swampland you may want to buy,” Phillips replied, pointing out that plummeting penalty revenue precludes DEP from monitoring compliance. “The rising pollution toll on Florida’s environment is obvious in growing algal blooms, aquifer contamination and mercury levels in wildlife.”
PEER unsuccessfully sought to disqualify DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard and his chief deputy, Jeff Littlejohn from all clean water permitting decisions under federal conflict rules, due to their prior industry ties. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sat on the PEER complaints until they became moot.
“In Florida, pollution penalties are no longer even a cost of doing business because free passes are now so plentiful,” Phillips concluded. “Industry self-regulation does not work on Wall Street to protect consumers and it surely does not work to protect our air, lands and waters.”