EPA Intervention Needed for Weak Florida Pollution Response
Petition Filed for Federal Enforcement Takeover in Palm Beach Contamination Case
Tallahassee — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency needs to take immediate enforcement action to redress dangerous and long-standing pollution violations in West Palm Beach, according to a formal “overfile” petition filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The filing represents an early test of EPA’s promises of tougher oversight of lax state environmental programs.
The action concerns vapor intrusion in an office building owned by Palm Beach County in which workers have become seriously ill. The building abuts the West Palm Beach Canal and the International Airport. The case also involves more than 20 years of petroleum contamination spreading from property now owned by Gastion, Inc.
U.S. EPA authority to enforce clean water and toxic waste laws has been delegated to Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which in turn delegated enforcement to Palm Beach County – in this instance putting the County in a conflicted position of having to take enforcement action against itself. The result has been decades of inaction, partial clean-up and continuing toxic leaks.
“This case is a poster child for federal intervention,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney, who filed the petition based on agency case files documenting year after year of inattention or ineffective half-measures. “People are getting sick from breathing contaminants and only urgent action will prevent more workers from becoming victims.”
The Obama administration has pledged tougher oversight of state anti-pollution programs. For example, in an October 15, 2009 hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson testified that –
“…we need to strengthen our oversight of state permitting and enforcement programs…In situations where states are not issuing protective permits or taking enforcement to achieve compliance, EPA needs to act to strengthen state programs and to pursue federal enforcement actions as necessary.”
The PEER overfile petition was filed today with the acting EPA Regional Administrator in Atlanta invoking EPA’s concurrent authority to enforce federal environmental statutes. It demands that EPA immediately take jurisdiction over (i.e., overfile) the case in order to protect public health and the environment and maintain the credibility of the federal program. If problems remain unaddressed, PEER can appeal to EPA’s Assistant Administrator for Enforcement and Compliance Assurance in Washington.
“After years of enforcement abdication by the Bush administration, we have been led to believe that the Obama administration will act promptly and diligently in cases of environmental dereliction brought to their attention,” Phillips added. “How this petition is handled will signal whether there is a reality behind the rhetoric of tougher oversight.”