Florida’s Toxic Cleanup Trust Funds Looted
Quarter Billion Dollar Diversion Compounded by Plummeting Penalty Revenue
Tallahassee — The dedicated fund to finance cleanup of thousands of contaminated petroleum sites in Florida has been ravaged by a combination of legislative diversions and evaporating enforcement, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a consequence, the backlog of sites tainted by leaking tanks awaiting restoration is growing, now reaching a total of more than 12,000.
In 1986, Florida created the Inland Protection Trust Fund (IPTF) to finance efforts by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to investigate, assess and restore contaminated petroleum sites. In creating the IPTF, the Legislature declared it was needed due to insufficient funds to remediate all the petroleum spill and leak sites, causing delays, added costs, and greater contamination.
Yet since 2011 at the request of the Scott administration, the Legislature has consistently diverted millions of dollars from the IPTF, substantially weakening DEP’s ability to complete needed restoration projects.
In fact, the rate of fiscal diversion has grown each year. According to IPTF quarterly reports dating back to 2011, when 3% of the IPTF was re-appropriated for other purposes, the portion reallocated has now swollen to almost a third (31.75%) of the entire IPTF by 2017. Altogether during these past six years, the Legislature has siphoned $289.7 million out of the IPTF.
“In Florida’s government, a trust fund is not to be trusted,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney. “The result is more toxic contamination of our surface and groundwater as well as soils surrounding thousands of leaking above-ground and underground storage tanks left un-remediated for longer periods of time.”
At the same time, less money is flowing into another trust fund, the Water Quality Assurance Trust Fund from tank-related enforcement penalties. Under Gov. Scott, eco-enforcement has taken a nosedive, especially in the petroleum tanks program. In 2009, DEP assessed more than $1.5 million in penalties under this program, an amount that has steeply fallen each year down to only $51,000 in 2016 – a more than 95% decline.
Penalties actually collected experienced a similar precipitous drop-off – from more than $547,000 in 2009 to less than $28,000 in 2016. Overall, DEP has collected only 36% of the $2.7 million in assessments levied since 2011.
“Both the Inland Protection Trust Fund and Water Quality Assurance Trust Fund are getting hit at both ends with massive legislative skimming from the top even as the flow of penalty-derived funds is drying up,” added Phillips. “These two dynamics work together to drive a downward spiral of delayed site restorations – putting both our environment and the health of Floridians at greater risk.”