Florida’s Waters Awash in Sewage Spills

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Wednesday, July 20, 2022
Jerry Phillips (850) 877-8097

Florida’s Waters Awash in Sewage Spills

Under DeSantis, More Inspections, More Pollution but Less Enforcement


Tallahassee, FL —Despite increasing pollution, Florida still lacks a coherent enforcement program, according to a new analysis by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  Especially acute are largely uncontrolled daily discharges of raw sewage into Florida’s fresh and marine waters and onto its streets, which is then flushed into nearby waterways.  

Florida suffered some 30 million gallons of raw sewage spills in 2021, as recorded in 900 emergency alerts from just 12 counties. This figure is likely a major underestimate since 60% of the known surface water dischargers did not report the volume of sewage released.  

Sewage spills result from nearly every tropical system, and even from daily thunderstorms. Nonetheless, the state’s domestic wastewater program had the lowest enforcement rate in 2021, with just 9% of violators charged. Further, it saw a 16% decrease in inspections from last year. 

“Almost daily sewage discharges have become a way of life in Florida. Our wastewater treatment facilities are clearly not designed to handle the inflow of sewage and rainfall that has become common,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former enforcement attorney with the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), noting that increasingly higher levels of nutrients in state waters are killing off seagrass and sparking toxic red tides. “Despite a growing water quality crisis, meaningful enforcement designed to curb this major source of pollution is virtually nonexistent.” 

PEER’s annual review of Florida’s overall pollution enforcement program found that, after a somnambulant 2020 in which inspections plunged, inspections more than tripled in 2021.  Those increased inspections also uncovered significantly more pollution violations, yet DEP –  

  • Opened substantially fewer enforcement cases than the year before, taking formal enforcement against just 10% of the noncompliant facilities, a recent record low rate;
  • Brought no formal action against nearly half (45%) of significant violators; and
  • Actually collected less than half (43%) of the civil penalties assessed, which, while a slight uptick from 2020, continued a marked decline in recent years. 

Further, by making liberal use of Compliance Assistance Offers (a tactic initiated under former Gov. Scott), DEP allowed most polluters the opportunity to have their violations “forgiven.”  Since DEP has no limit on how many free passes are issued, repeat violators can easily skate. 

“To put things in perspective, judged by the volume of enforcement, DEP 2021’s performance is still only 44% of the agency’s 2010 performance,” added Phillips who has been reporting for PEER on DEP’s enforcement metrics for 19 years. “Traditionally, DEP has been an agency beholden to developers and industry while relying upon photo-ops to showcase stewardship.  Until that changes, DEP will continue to stand for ‘Don’t Expect Protection.’” 


Read the 2021 report 

See classic case of sewage spill non-enforcement 

Look at prior years’ reports 

View DEP enforcement case trends 

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