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Under Scott's reign, the DEP has also repealed over 300 environmental rules to cut down on "red tape," according to the governor's Office of Fiscal Accountability and Regulatory Reform as cited by the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.
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