Former State Attorney: Florida Soft on Environmental Crime

Thursday, Jan 7, 2010  |  Updated 3:18 PM PDT
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Former State Attorney: Florida Soft on Environmental Crime

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida, November 25, 2008 (ENS) - A former enforcement attorney with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said today that Florida is "significantly more lenient with polluters" now than the state has been over the past 20 years.

Jerry Phillips, who currently serves as director of the Florida branch of the national nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, has produced a new analysis of enforcement statistics for environmental crimes in Florida.

"Report on Enforcement Efforts by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection: A Historical Perspective," is a detailed breakdown of data from 1988 to present on how the Florida DEP treats violators. The report also analyzes enforcement performance for each DEP program.

"The data show that there actually were good old days for pollution control in Florida," said Phillips. "Unfortunately, those good old days are long gone, replaced by a paper pushing system that has no teeth."

The result is that violators in the Sunshine State more often get away with paying small fines without even a requirement to clean up pollution or follow up to make sure the violation is not continuing.

DEP’s Division of Law Enforcement is responsible for statewide environmental resource law enforcement, and patrolling state parks and greenways and trails. Agents investigate environmental resource crimes and illegal dredge and fill activities, and respond to natural disasters, civil unrest, hazardous material incidents and oil spills that threaten the environment.

In 2007, the DEP’s Bureau of Emergency Response responded to more than 2,100 incidents. DEP’s Bureau of Environmental Investigations conducted almost 350 criminal investigations in 2007, resulting in 133 arrests.

Population growth in Florida since 1988 has increased the total number of state environmental enforcement cases but the effectiveness of that enforcement activity has declined, according to Phillips' report.

As measures of that effectiveness, the report points to "a significant drop in requirements that violators perform restoration or other actions that actually reduce the pollution discharges."

The amount of penalties assessed for pollution violations, when adjusted for inflation, is now lower than it was 20 years ago, says Phillips.

The Florida Legislature set penalty schedules in 2001 that protected polluters from higher fines; and as a result, the report shows that the percentage of penalties actually collected for state coffers has been in a downward trend.

"If the state does not even collect the modest fines that it assesses, one has to ask what is the point?" Phillips says.

The lost revenue from uncollected penalties further aggravates DEP budget shortfalls, he points out, adding, "The cumulative effect of lax enforcement makes Florida a less attractive place to live."

DEP itself appears to recognize the growing ineffectiveness of its enforcement program.

In February 2007, the state announced a new Environmental Crimes Strike Force, which was intended to investigate crimes like chemical dumping.

On July 18, 2007, DEP Secretary Michael Sole unveiled a new civil pollution fine schedule, declaring, "I want to change the idea that penalties are a cost of doing business by emphasizing the agency’s tough stance against violators."

But, as Phillips' report shows, that new schedule does not appear to have reversed the sagging enforcement drift.

"In Florida, state penalties remain an acceptable cost of doing business as usual precisely because DEP does not employ the enforcement tools that it has long had at its disposal," says Phillips.

Click here to read the Florida PEER report on the trends in environmental enforcement over the past 20 years.

View analyses of Florida DEP enforcement from 2005-7 here.

To report environmental crime, most wireless customers in Florida can now dial #DEP. Callers can also report environmental crimes to the Environmental Crimes Hotline at the State Warning Point by calling 1 (877) 272-8335 or 1 (877) 2-SAVE-FL.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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