Low Priority Toxic Sites Go to Head of Florida’s Cleanup Line
Rural Residents at Greater Risk from Leaving the Most Hazardous Sites Unabated
Tallahassee — The Scott administration is targeting sites for cleanup that are less contaminated from leaking petroleum tanks, leaving the most contaminated sites unaddressed. This low hanging fruit approach gives a false picture of progress and leaves many residents, especially in rural areas, at greater risk, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
State law provides that each contaminated site requiring petroleum cleanup process be evaluated to determine a priority score based upon its proximity to health receptors such as drinking water wells. The higher the score the greater the threat to a drinking water well. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has adopted a rule limiting cleanup assignments to sites with the highest priority scores. The only mechanism for avoiding this process is in the event of emergencies.
Under the Scott administration, however, the sites being closed following cleanup are the sites with the lowest scores, meaning that the more contaminated sites that pose a higher human health risk are not receiving the same attention. In fact, the median priority scores for remediated sites has dropped every year since 2011, falling by half in just the past six years. At the same time, the number of sites being closed each year has risen.
“When Governor Scott took office, the state was using available funds to close petroleum sites that posed a higher risk to the public’s health and welfare,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney. “Under Scott, the principle of ‘worst go first’ has been stood on its head.”
This problem is magnified because there are not enough funds to clean up the more than 12,000 petroleum-contaminated sites still awaiting remediation. And in recent years, the Legislature, with the support of the Scott administration, has diverted a major portion of funds dedicated to cleanup trust funds to other purposes. As more aboveground and underground petroleum tanks leak or rupture, the backlog of unaddressed sites only grows.
“Short-sheeting the petroleum trust funds led the Scott team to concentrate the fewer available dollars on low-scored sites at the expense of high-scored sites in order to create a facade of progress,” added Phillips, noting that the more contaminated sites are more expensive to clean up. “Scott’s approach produces the least bang for the buck while leaving the hardest and largest portions of cleanup work for his successor.”
The DEP site scoring system also considers whether the public gets its drinking water from municipal systems (as opposed to private wells). The idea is that municipal systems mitigate the risk associated with petroleum contamination, since the public is drinking water that has been treated by municipal plants. Those who get their water supplies from private wells, however, do not enjoy this same level of safety. Consequently, the levels of petroleum contamination in rural counties is typically higher – sometimes much higher – than levels in urban communities which provide municipal water to their residents.