Pollution Penalties Plummet in Florida
Enforcement at Near Record Low Levels; “Pay-to-Pollute” is the Norm
Tallahassee — Pollution prosecutions by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection hit historic lows in 2005, according to an analysis of agency data released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Last year’s slide continues a decline that started shortly after Governor Jeb Bush took office.
The state’s figures for 2005 pollution enforcement reveal that –
- Less than 3% of cases were referred to agency attorneys for formal prosecution;
- Civil penalties were down more than 19% from a year ago. The state assessed less than $8 million in fines during the entire year, down from nearly $10 million the year before; and
- In some of the fastest growing areas of the state, hazardous waste, industrial waste and asbestos enforcement which should be high due to all of the construction activity were virtually non-existent.
“Pollution enforcement by the State of Florida has gotten just plain pitiful,” stated Florida PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney. “Since DEP funds its inspections out of fine revenue, the situation will only worsen because the state will have even less money for enforcement next year.”
Although the state opened more cases than last year, fewer were closed with any meaningful enforcement action. The most common form of enforcement, however, was the least serious: a short-form consent order that carries a small fine, no clean-up requirements and no follow-up by the state. In 2005, an all-time high (60%) of all DEP enforcement actions were short-form consent orders.
“In Florida we now have a pay-to-pollute system in which environmental violations are just a normal cost of doing business,” Phillips added. “It is a lot cheaper to pay the state’s penny ante fines than it is to clean up the pollution.”
One area of particular concern is the sharp curtailment of actions to protect the public and workers from exposure to deadly airborne asbestos fibers. Last month, Florida PEER called for an investigation by the Inspector General of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into the utter breakdown of asbestos enforcement by the state.
The PEER analysis breaks down the performance of each of DEP’s five regional offices (“districts”) by violation type and includes comparisons of recent performance to historic averages. In 2005, the DEP Northwest District, located in Pensacola, has the weakest record while the Southwest District, in Tampa, had the strongest.