Washington, DC — Corporations who violate pollution laws in Florida are almost always able to negotiate their way out of paying fines, according to a report released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
In a report entitled Let’s Make A Deal: Corporate Avoidance of Pollution Penalties in Florida, PEER examines Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) enforcement actions over the past five years. DEP almost never takes unilateral action against corporate violators. Instead, the agency works out a “consent order” with the polluter and these arrangements exhibit a clear pattern:
- Corporate violators are seldom if ever required to pay civil fines;
- Criminal charges are not pursued, even against repeat violators with long records of multiple pollution offenses; and
- In some settlements, corporate polluters are given new permits that increase the amount of pollution the companies are allowed to emit.
“Pollution pays in Florida; it is just a cost of doing business as usual,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney. “Until the state adopts enforcement approaches that take the profits out of polluting, the DEP is just spinning its wheels.”
In Florida, only individuals or “mom and pop” businesses are ordered to pay civil fines. By contrast, corporate violators bargain with DEP to obtain alternative resolutions. In theory, these alternatives are supposed to prevent or clean-up pollution at a cost equal to or greater than the civil penalties for which they should be liable. In fact, corporations prefer these alternatives because they commonly —
- Are tax deductible, allowing corporations to minimize net costs or even come out financially ahead;
- Allow the violator to invest in plant improvements that create economic benefits for the polluter. In other words, the polluter can avoid fines by investing in capital improvements that add to the company’s bottom line; and
- Often involve substantial forgiveness or reduction of the total penalty amount before calculating the value of the alternative.
In addition to other shortcomings of these penalty alternatives, avoidance of civil penalties cuts revenue going into the state Ecosystem Management and Restoration Trust Fund. This Fund is supposed to finance a wide range of pollution prevention and clean-up activities, ranging from Florida’s fragile coral reefs to gritty industrial “brownfields” in Florida’s cities. “Floridians lose twice with this kid glove treatment of corporate polluters: once by forfeiting penalty revenue that should be used to clean up our state and twice by having to spend their tax dollars dealing with the messes left behind by polluters who rip and skip,” explained Phillips. Let’s Make a Deal contains specific recommendations for implementing a new, tougher enforcement policy.