If there was any question whether Florida Gov. Rick Scott favored business over the environment, this week he ended the debate. Scott appointed a businessman with a history of environmental problems to oversee the board that's supposed to protect South Florida's water supply and wetlands from pollution.
Juan Portuondo, if confirmed by the Florida Senate, will be the newest board member of the South Florida Water Management District. He will represent Miami-Dade County, where he once ran a trash incinerator known for its mercury, water, and air pollution.
Just how bad is Portuondo's environmental history? Greenpeace once labeled the incinerator he ran a "major source of mercury emissions" and said he was responsible "for much of the contamination in the Everglades."
That's right, a man once allegedly responsible for much of the Everglades contamination is
now serving on a board that's supposed to keep wetlands safe.
Portuondo, a 67-year-old Key Biscayne resident, didn't return phone calls to his home and the water management district office. But his background is spelled out in news stories going back to the early 1990s, when he left a job as technical services administrator for the City of Miami.
The job he took was president of Montenay Power Corp., which ran the county-owned trash incinerator plant at 6990 NW 97th Ave. in Miami. Florida Department of Environmental Regulation inspections back then didn't go well -- one inspector had to flee the plant because the smell was making him sick. Then a tour by Department of Environmental Regulation top brass was cut short when a fire raged out of control.
Environmental and safety problems at Montenay piled up over the years, according to a series of Miami Herald reports from the time. Smokestacks billowed heavy metal contaminants into the air. Rainwater soaked with trash ran underground. A worker was electrocuted and another burned by a fireball. All that pollution earned Montenay a record $640,000 fine in 1991 from the Department of Environmental Regulation.
In response, Portuondo continued to defend his company, saying it has spent millions to make things better, even though those fixes apparently hadn't quelled the pollution. "We've gone from zero to nine on a scale of ten," Portuondo told the Herald in 1991.
Despite those problems, Portuondo continued to lobby county leaders to expand the plant's capacity by 40 percent. To help the lobbying efforts, Montenay gave tens of thousands of dollars to a foundation run by popular South Florida environmentalist Edmund Benson. In exchange, Benson lobbied the county in 1993 to keep a school off property near the incinerator plant, meaning the plant would be free to expand.
In 2005, the Herald mentioned Portuondo as a former official at Montenay. The article cites a report issued by the county's inspector general about problems with the county's solid waste department. One of those problems included Portuondo receiving a $68,000 contract to inspect the Montenay plant for the county, even while he still collected a paycheck as a lobbyist for his former company.
It's unclear when Portuondo left Montenay. A spokeswoman for Veolia Environmental Services, which now owns Montenay, didn't return a phone call. A South Florida Water Management District spokesman said his office was waiting for the governor to send an official bio of Portuondo. Scott's brief written announcement about the appointment of Portuondo said he was the president of IP Group Inc., which, according to state records, went out of business last year.
Lane Wright, the governor's press secretary, offered up a simple explanation for why Portuondo was picked. "Gov. Scott feels he was the best qualified for the job. That's it. Period," he said. When asked about Portuondo's long history of environmental problems, Wright said he "wanted to emphasize" that Portuondo was picked because he was the most qualified.
With all this mystery about what Portuondo is doing now, perhaps it'd be better to look back to 1991, when Department of Environmental Regulation specialist Carol Meeds spoke to the Herald about the plant Portuondo ran: "People who live near this plant should be concerned."
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Now that Portuondo's on the water management board, perhaps anyone who cares about the environment in South Florida should also be concerned.