By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
A new report from a group that represents government environmental regulation workers shows the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has been enforcing the state’s environmental laws increasingly less since Gov. Rick Scott appointed Herschel Vinyard to run the agency.
The Associated Press reported:
The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility report says that since Scott took office and Secretary Herschel Vinyard took over DEP in 2011, enforcement has dropped by just about every measure. For example, DEP opened 1,587 cases in 2010 and 663 last year. Similar drops were shown in consent orders, which dropped from 1,249 in 2010 to 482 last year, as well as penalties assessed and fines collected.
The report said the department essentially has become nonfunctional under Vinyard, who worked for a shipyard before Scott appointed him secretary.
“This is nothing more than that department taking a blind eye, looking the other way when these facilities pollute,” said Jerry Phillips, director of Florida PEER. “The message is out to the employees that they should not be aggressive in this area. We talk to these employees, we hear from them and I haven’t heard from a single employee that enforcement is better now under Herschel Vinyard. It’s just the opposite.”
DEP said it is taking its responsibility seriously and said the drop in cases is because of a focus on prevention.
This report follows a series of changes for the DEP. This year Scott signed House Bill 999 into law last week, which relaxed a slew of environmental regulations on businesses within the state. The agency has also gone through a couple rounds of layoffs.
The Orlando Sentinel reported this past June that Christopher Byrd and Kelly Russel “were fired last month by DEP General Counsel Matthew Leopold in identical letters notifying them the office’s goals would be ‘accomplished more effectively by removing you from your positions.’” The Sentinel also reported that two other lawyers also resigned, “and one suggested it was not by choice”:
DEP has said the dismissals were part of a streamlining necessitated by the decreased volume of permits flowing through the agency since the Great Recession.
Back in 2006, DEP fielded roughly 38,000 permit applications a year from developers, other businesses or residents, a figure that has leveled off at around 19,000 annually now, according to the agency.
Likewise, the number of “enforcement actions” against polluters has dropped markedly — from a peak of 2,289 in 2010, the last year before Scott took office, to just 799 last year. So far in 2013, there have been only 145 enforcement cases where DEP has found someone violating environmental-permitting rules.
“These staffing decisions were made as … a new manager assessed his team and made decisions on who can best handle the legal issues within the Department,” DEP spokesman Patrick Gillespie wrote in an email. “As our compliance numbers have increased, there have been fewer enforcement cases for attorneys to handle.”
This followed news from The Tampa Bay Times reported Dec. 24, 2012 that the DEP laid off 58 employees earlier that month.
One of the employees said the mass layoffs at the end of 2012 ”were designed to loosen regulation of polluting industries.”