Despite campaign promises to go after environmental bad actors and polluters, Gov. Rick Scott's administration has done no such thing. That's the takeaway of a new report released Monday by the Florida chapter of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Each year, the group monitors the number of new environmental enforcement cases opened by the Department of Environmental Protection. Now, with the 2014 numbers in, the group has presented a comprehensive scorecard of the state's environmental police under Scott — and it's not pretty.
Updated below with a statement from the Department of Environmental Protection.
According to the data released by PEER — culled from public records requests — in 2014, 234 enforcement cases were opened by DEP. That's an uptick from the number the department posted in 2013 — 210 cases. But in 2010, before Scott settled into the governor's mansion, DEP logged 1,587 new enforcement cases. That means between 2010 and 2014 — the governor's first term in office — there's been an 85 percent drop-off in the number of environmental enforcement cases.
In South Florida, the numbers are particularly stark. In 2014, the department cracked open new files on 28 enforcement cases in the Southeastern District. In 2013, it tallied 18. Compare that with back in 2010, when the Southeastern District opened 206 enforcement cases. In each of the department's districts, the 2010 number was in the triple digits; in each, the 2014 tally is in the double digits.
Another startling stat posited by PEER: Of the 234 cases opened in 2014, 144 ended with penalties handed to the environmental bad actors, meaning 62 percent of the cases. Compared to 2010, this is again a reduction. That year, 1,318 of the cases ended in penalties — 83 percent.
The news isn't all bad. The department did assess more civil penalties in 2014 than in 2013. But still, when you compare those penalties to the pre-Scott years, they are dismal. From the PEER report:
The Department assessed $1,515,020.45 in civil penalties in 2014, up $82,304.84 from the $1,432,715.61 in civil penalties that were assessed in 2013. Overall, the 2014 result represents an 88% drop from the dollar value of penalties assessed in 2010 and it is the second lowest value (2013 was the lowest) the Department has amassed since 1988 ($1,013,302.16 was assessed in 1988). 1988 was the first full year for which data is available for the then Department of Environmental Regulation.
The department also pocketed more of the money owned by bad actors in 2014 than in 2013: $932,998.94 collected in 2014 versus $687,777.69 in 2013's civil penalties. But this is the first year since 2010 that that total increased.
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“Under Scott, the DEP has largely ceased engaging in meaningful environmental protection,”Jerry Phillips, director of Florida PEER, said in a statement Monday. “By virtually every measure, enforcement levels are so low that it is hard to even get a pulse.”
We've reached out to DEP for a comment on PEER's report. We'll update this post if they get back to us.
UPDATE: On Wednesday morning, Lori Elliott with DEP provided the following statement:
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s regulatory programs have maintained a historic high 96 percent significant compliance rate for two consecutive years. Compliance is DEP’s objective and resolving non-compliance quickly and informally is preferable when violations are minor and when recurrence can be eliminated. DEP remains committed to protecting the environment through education, outreach and inspections.
Statewide, DEP’s outreach efforts for the first three quarters of fiscal year 2014-15, included 839 events that reached 48,183 people. By working with citizens and businesses that the department regulates, noncompliance and environmental harm are avoided.
DEP’s focus remains on taking a proactive approach to protecting Florida’s environment through education and outreach; however, when enforcement is necessary, the department takes corrective action and uses every tool at its disposal to hold offenders accountable.