Polluters are getting away scot-free in Florida, quite literally, according to one group that alleges Gov. Rick Scott and his slimmed-down Department of Environmental Protection are not doing their jobs.
Thursday Public Employees For Environmental Responsibility (PEER) issued a statement that the DEP collected 70 percent less in fines from violators in 2012, and the agency opened half as many environmental investigations as it did the year before.
"These latest figures document a jaw-dropping abdication of pollution protections in Florida," wrote PEER Director Jerry Phillips, a former DEP enforcement attorney, who conducted the analysis. "If Florida is in a race to the bottom, it has reached the basement."
The group says Scott advised DEP staff to restrain from pursuing enforcement and laid off staff responsible for enforcing the state's environmental standards.
PEER also released an internal DEP memo in which the deputy secretary Jeff Littlejohn advises directors to focus on compliance without enforcement.
Meanwhile, the DEP says the lower enforcement numbers are merely a consequence of more Florida industries operating within safe environmental standards.
Littlejohn reasoned in a July editorial that ran in several Florida newspapers that the lower penalties collected this year are the result of not only higher compliance rates, but also catching problems before they officially exceed standards.
Yet Phillips says that DEP is unable to back up this claim with specifics and that lower penalty revenue means the department has fewer financial resources to track whether industries are in fact adhering to environmental standards.
And one of the 58 DEP employees laid off by Scott's cuts told the Tampa Bay Times, "I've seen the way politics has influenced that agency in the past, but never like this. It's not about compliance [with the rules]. It's about making things look like they're compliant."
2013 looks to be just as quiet for the DEP.
As of May, the department has found only 145 incidents in which the state's environmental codes were violated, reports the Orlando Sentinel. Compare that to 2,289, the amount of "enforcement actions" in 2010, the year before Scott was in office.
Under Scott's reign, the DEP has also repealed over 300 environmental rules to cut down on "red tape," according to the governor's Office of Fiscal Accountability and Regulatory Reform as cited by the Orlando Sentinel.
Also on HuffPost:
1. Public Lands
In 2005, <em>National Geographic</em> ranked the Florida Everglades/Big Cypress National Preserve as the <a href="http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/sustainable/pdf/geotourism_national_parks_scorecard.pdf " target="_hplink">worst preserved national park in North America</a>. Though it is protected land, urban sprawl is pressed right up against wildlife habitat and motorized watercraft chop up seagrass, especially in shallower bodies of water like the Florida Bay. "These public lands should get all of the protection that they can get. Wildlife, they're the last consideration. More than anything, these national parks were established not for recreation but to protect these valuable resources that we have," Schwartz said.
2. Urban Sprawl
With Florida's growing population comes cars and never ending construction -- right up to the edge of the Everglades. According to the Wildlife 2060 report prepared by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, <a href="http://myfwc.com/media/129053/FWC2060.pdf " target="_hplink">7 million acres of rural and natural land could be converted into urban space</a> in the next 50 years. That's hundreds of thousands of acres lost to Florida's wildlife, such as the black bear, panther and bald eagle. "South Florida is clearly a biological hotspot... protected areas are going to become little islands, completely separated from each other by roads and development. We might in our minds imagine that that's OK, that wildlife can still live on these little patches of public land, but that's not always the case," Schwartz said.
3. Ocean Health
Not only does CO2 go into the air, but it also is pulled into the the oceans, creating carbonic acid. That combined with pollution, acidification, ocean warming, overfishing and deoxygenation could lead to <a href="http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2011/110621.html " target="_hplink">mass extinctions in oceans around the world</a>, according to finding by a symposium hosted at the University of Oxford. Considering how much of Florida is surrounded by water, this has a large impact on the ecosystem and essentially, the state's economy.
4. Lack of Fresh Water
The tri-county area in <a href="http://www.sfwmd.gov/portal/page/portal/xweb - release 3 water supply/ground water modeling" target="_hplink">South Florida relies on the Biscayne Aquifer</a>, and with Florida shifting between the wet and drought season, it can be difficult to supply drinking water to the millions of people who need it. New plans are to <a href="http://www.evergladesplan.org/pm/projects/proj_08_eaa_phase_1.aspx" target="_hplink">build reservoirs in the northern edge of the Everglades</a>.
5. Stormwater Sewage
Stormwater drains capture rainwater on roads and move it into canals and, eventually, the ocean. However, the water is generally not cleaned. That means antifreeze, gasoline and any other toxins from cars goes into Florida's oceans. Cities like Miramar are working to <a href="http://www.ci.miramar.fl.us/publicworks/stormwater/ " target="_hplink">educate its residents about how to avoid dirtying this water</a> to avoid having to clean it later.
6. Oil Drilling in the Gulf
Florida is surrounded by major drilling projects, including those by our neighbors Cuba and the Bahamas. Should there be an oil spill, the state is in danger of it being fed into Florida's loop current, Schwartz said. Luckily, this wasn't the case in the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, but should an oil spill reach Florida's loop current, the effects on the state's ecosystem would be catastrophic. "We've got oil drilling on all three sides, we're surrounded by oil," Schwartz said. "Given the amount of oil drilling out there, we can't expect that to keep happening."
7. Rising Sea Levels
With warmer waters comes melting ice caps, leading to the <a href="http://geology.com/sea-level-rise/florida.shtml" target="_hplink">flooding of many of Florida's coastal cities</a>. Not only that, an increase in ocean would lead to the flooding of the Biscayne Aquifer, which would contaminate the tri-county area's prime source of drinking water with salt water.
8. Unclean Energy
In 2011, the National Resources Defense Council<a href="http://www.nrdc.org/media/2011/110720.asp " target="_hplink"> named Florida the third most toxic state in the country</a>, based on its output of pollution from power plants. The same year, a power plant was <a href="http://www.palmbeachpost.com/news/news/power-plant-proposed-in-florida-panther-habitat/nLsTK/" target="_hplink">proposed to be built in panther habitats</a>. With more people moving to Florida, more energy is used, and experts, including Schwartz, believe there needs to be more investment in cleaner energy, like solar power, and calls upon Florida Power & Light to move in that direction.
9. Lack of Mass Transit
Everyone talks about the "carbon footprint" each person leaves behind. In such a car-reliant region such as South Florida, carbon dioxide is emitted into the air and ocean. Generally speaking, about <a href="http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/co2.shtml" target="_hplink">one gallon of gasoline can produce 20 pounds of carbon dioxide</a>. With projects such as the $1.2 billion <a href="http://www.i-595.com/About-Improvements.asp" target="_hplink">I-595 expansion project in Broward</a>, this could get worse. However, there has also been a push for improving on the area's public transportation, including <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/28/miami-trolley-marlins_n_1307178.html" target="_hplink">Miami's trolley</a>, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jerry-libbin/miami-beach-public-transportation_b_1576169.html" target="_hplink">Decobike</a>, adding a new <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/27/miami-metrorail-mia-orange-line_n_1710164.html" target="_hplink">line on the Metrorail</a>, and the construction of the Miami Intermodal Center.
10. Aging Infrastructure
Miami-Dade's water and sewage lines are falling apart. In the last two years, <a href="http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/05/14/v-fullstory/2799249/miami-dades-leaky-pipes-more-than.html" target="_hplink">pipes have ruptured 65 times and caused 47 million gallons of waste</a> to be deposited into the ocean. In November 2011, about <a href="http://miami.cbslocal.com/2011/11/21/clean-up-underway-after-nasty-sewage-pipe-spill-in-hollywood/" target="_hplink">40,000 gallons of raw sewage</a> was dumped into the ocean when a line burst in Hollywood.