A Florida newspaper sifts through public records to find the impact of deregulation and staff cuts on the state's ecology. (Photo via Sara Brockmann/ FLGov.com)

A Florida newspaper sifts through public records to find the impact of deregulation and staff cuts on the state’s ecology. (Photo via Sara Brockmann/ FLGov.com)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

A Scripps-owned newspaper covering Indian River, St. Lucie, Martin and Palm Beach counties published an in-depth look at Gov. Rick Scott’s environmental record during the past few years. The report looks at the effect of deregulation on the state’s ecology.

Earlier this month, Scott began touting his environmental record and made a few campaign promises. Among other things, Scott promised to spend millions on land conservation and get tougher on polluters in the state. As I noted, along with others, this plan is a stark departure from most of his years in office.

For a closer look, Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers published more than 2,000 words on what the state’s relaxed environmental regulations in the past few years have done to Florida’s water quality.

According to the newspaper, they “spent months sifting through hundreds of public records to determine the statewide extent of Scott’s deregulation and how it affects waterways, including the Indian River Lagoon.”

Scripps TC Palm began with a look at a series of local projects approved by Scott under less strict environmental regulations. The projects include dredging a deeper shipping channel in Biscayne Bay, the construction of a longer dock on the St. Lucie River and the construction of a jetty at an oceanfront home in Marathon that now blocks ocean currents.

The newspaper reported:

…The investigation found these types of projects pose more harm to the environment than allowed under previous governors and are tied to drastic policy changes, sliced budgets, reduced staffing and relaxed permitting since 2011.

Revamped agencies often approved projects with less review and sometimes dispensed with established guidelines, the investigation found.

Officials in Scott’s office and the state Department of Environmental Protection said they lightened regulatory burdens on property owners and industry while safeguarding the environment. In July they reiterated plans to spend more than $230 million for water restoration projects.

On Aug. 4, Scott announced he would recommend spending more than $1 billion in the next decade to restore, protect and increase water resources. He also vowed to get tougher on violators.

…Conservationists say Scott’s plan is an election-year tactic that doesn’t make up for weakened oversight.

“What has been done to the state’s ability to manage its natural resources is scandalous,” Sonny Vergara, former Southwest Florida Water Management District director and a conservation blogger, wrote in an email to Scripps. “The damage (agencies), the governor and the right-wing legislature has done to this state will take decades to undo … if ever it can be undone.”

Among other things, the paper said environmental agencies like the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the state’s water management district have all suffered staff cuts.

The report states that Scott signed legislation in 2011 that cut “water districts’ budgets by a combined $700 million.” Because of the funding cuts, about 500 people were laid off across the state resulting in “several dozen vacant jobs being slashed or frozen,” the newspaper reported. At the same time, “DEP laid off 134 people — 41 of them with a decade or more of service — and slashed a dozen vacant jobs,” the paper reported.

Scott also appointed a former shipping industry official and an engineering consultant to run the state’s environmental agency.

With the leadership changes and the new rules, TC Palm reports, regulation of the state’s waterways went through a dramatic shift:

The new agency leaders relaxed rules so applicants could get permits quicker, with fewer questions asked, the Scripps investigation found. Permit reviewers can ask an applicant only one round of questions, no matter how complex the project, former employees and industry advocates say.

David Urban, a former water management employee, said his review time was reduced to 15 days from 30 days on many projects.

“If you have a road project of significant size, you cannot review it in 15 days,” said Urban, a retired engineer who was with Southwest Florida Water Management District for 24 years.

… DEP laid off some of the staffers who reviewed permits and then put those tasks on enforcement agents who lacked technical expertise, said Christopher Byrd, a former DEP attorney.

As a result, agents deferred even more to bosses who were bent on pushing through as many projects as possible, he said.

State agency officials have said that throughout all of this regulators have remained diligent.

However, environmental groups like the Florida chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) say the shift in philosophy at the DEP has resulted in less enforcement action against polluters in the stateincluding Florida’s major wastewater dischargers.

But, DEP officials have said in press statements that this is because compliance rates are up across “the department’s regulatory programs [with] an all-time high of 96-percent.”

As TC Palm explains, during the past few years DEP has shifted to “’compliance assistance’ in which agents coach violators on how to follow the rules instead of penalize them as in years past.”

In short the agency is trying to be friendlier to businesses. The approach attempts to increase outreach and prevent environmental harm before it occurs.

However, environmental activists say state agencies need to be tough on businesses – especially if they pollute or break any rules—because if they don’t, the state’s ecology will suffer in the long run.