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Report: Anti-pollution enforcement drops under Scott

Posted Jun 20, 2012 by William March

Updated Jun 20, 2012 at 05:05 PM

A study by an environmental advocacy group says state action to enforce laws against pollution dropped sharply during Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s first year in office, likely as a result of a deliberate policy decision outlined in state officials’ memos.

The report by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, looked at numbers of enforcement cases brought by the state Department of Environmental Protection; numbers of consent orders, in which individuals or companies accused of violating pollution standards agree to take steps to stop the violations; and numbers and amounts of fines levied and actually collected.

It found “dramatic declines ... across virtually all districts and all forms of pollution,” a news release about the study said. It said those declines “appear to reflect directives that state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) staff should avoid pursuing enforcement if at all possible,” citing a November, 2011 memo from DEP Deputy Secretary Jeff Littlejohn.

That memo directed the DEP staff to look at “education and outreach” first, before resorting to enforcement.

Among the findings:
—Total enforcement cases fell by 28 percent, and the DEP’s Office of General Counsel received the third lowest number of case reports in agency history.
—Pollution penalty assessments dropped 29 percent, and penalties actually collected dropped 57 percent. Cases involving big fines, more than $100,000, were cut about in half.
—Enforcement actions including consent orders dropped 62 percent compared to 2010, and other enforcement orders “sank to levels not seen since the mid-90s.”

The study particularly noted a report by the DEP’s Inspector General’s Office criuticizing the effectiveness of air pollution enforcement in the 11-county district including Tampa.

The DEP’s response, from spokeswoman Jennifer Diaz, was that enforcement alone doesn’t tell the whole story, and that it’s “irresponsible of PEER to put out a press release without considering the full picture and our compliance education and outreach efforts,” including educating businesses about environmental requirements.

Making enforcement a last resort, she said, “is not an effort to weaken environmental standards. ... We would rather encourage and educate the public about compliance on the front end than impose fines after the fact.”